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Microsoft TouchWall needs a physics lesson

Monday, 11 August 2008 — by

TouchWall is Microsoft’s go-anywhere multi-touch technology for ad hoc presentations. But what might TouchWall be like if we added a whole new physical dimension?

microsoft-logo-in-blackMuch like Surface before it, TouchWall is side-stepping the too-hot-to-touch iPhone and aiming squarely at the presentation market — assuming TouchWall ever sees the light of day, that is.

Forgoing any proper research, I’m assuming William Gates III did actually demo TouchWall at some point:

“Bill Gates will demo a new multi-touch computer and interface today called TouchWall at the Microsoft CEO Summit in Redmond.

TouchWall refers to the touch screen hardware setup itself; the corresponding software to run TouchWall, which is built on a standard version of Vista, is called Plex.”

Drawing on real-world physics

The one thing that I’m guessing TouchWall lacks is the levels (or degrees) of sensitivity with respect to touch sensitivity. Since there’s no direct surface detection, relying instead on a mesh of scattered infrared beams, that might be a trade-off.

On the upside, TouchWall does boast whiteboard tools, which adds a certain level of richness to their product. While watching the demonstration, I was immediately given to thinking about Crayon Physics and Aqua Forest; two games for the iPhone which allow the player to create objects that are subject to the same laws of physics as real-world objects are.

Aside from the obvious enhanced drawing capabilities, Microsoft do love their .Net and Visual Basic hooks & barbs. So what if Microsoft made their own physics engine, which could be extended by developers?

Now, imagine a large customer like Boeing, who, with their teams of engineers and designers, could extend the physics engine of TouchWall to incorporate their own proprietary know-how and engineering knowledge to share rough ideas in whiteboard fashion.

Now imagine the applications in the worlds of academia and even contemporary art which isn’t averse to using technology.

Microsoft TouchWall Professional Home Business Edition. Or is that Home Business Professional Edition?

So how typical of Microsoft to go and make things more complicated than they need be.

Unable to shrug off their penchant for muddled product lines and blurred naming conventions (take a look at the 9 different flavours of Windows Vista as an example of what I mean), Microsoft go and release two superficially very similar products, only to then tell us they’re actually totally different, sporting very different names, despite being based on the same operating system.

They release a product like Surface, which is hugely expensive and was roundly panned as being me-too when compared to the technology behind the iPhone.

Then they talk up Plex, which is actually affordable and a fairly compelling products, which would segue nicely with many of their Office and general productivity software applications, yet decide to keep it as a research project and nothing more?

Sigh…

Almost everything Microsoft do is an extension of their Windows franchise. There aren’t that many players in the touch screen market, aside from Apple in the prosumer space and Jeff Han and his largely high-end touch screen systems. So more competition is needed, if only to make everyone else work harder and innovate all the more.

On the whole, I like Microsoft Surface, despite its odd hardware pedigree, heart-stopping price and quite narrow target market:

“I think that Microsoft Surface really does strip the whole idea of usable multi-point touch-screen technology right back to the very idea, which is letting the objects be the focus — be they photographs, music, video, actual items on the surface of the touch-screen itself, such as cameras and mobile phones.”

If neither Surface of TouchWall are not from the same division, then they need to be. Between these two products, Microsoft have some very, very compelling and innovative ideas, which have the potential to enhance their Office product line, at a time when Microsoft may be losing touch with business customers, who’re beginning to look elsewhere for their office productivity tools…

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