iPad-style interfaces the future of computing, Gartner says

The impact of Apple Inc.’s iPad multitouch interface is so profoundthat it’s poised to revolutionize consumer products and could even threaten Microsoft Corp.’s market position at the same time, a Gartner Inc. study reports.

The multitouch screen has touched off a new wave of interfaceinnovations that could one day see people operating their computers bysliding their finger up and down their forearm as a body-basedtouchpad, according to the study “iPad and Beyond: What the Future of Computing Holds.”

The success of the iPad multitouch screen hasmotivated developers to work on new ways of controlling computers witha user’s gaze, gestures, tone of voice, mood or thoughts, the reportsays. Through biosensing, for example, sensors attached to or implanted in the body pick up motion on the user’s skin and transmit it wirelessly to the computer.

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“Commands such as scrolling by sliding a finger on the forearm orzoom(ing) by pinching the thumb and index finger, are in development,”according to the report by Angela McIntyre, research director forconsumer dynamics at Gartner.

These futuristic interfaces could involve various combinations ofelectrodes attached to the body, video cameras, voice recognitionsoftware and algorithms to turn data from the user’s body into computercommands, the study says.

“By 2016 half of consumers in mature markets will wave more frequentlyto their digital devices than to their friends,” says the report,forecasting the future popularity of gesture-based computing.

Though some of those capabilities are still years away, the popularityof the iPad’s multitouch interface is already influencing the consumerworld beyond computing devices. Earlier this year Adidas AG introduced its adiVERSE3D touch wall to give shoppers a virtual way to select shoes in itsfuture stores.
“They have this state of the art touch screen now, the size of a wall, with 3D rendered products shoppers can select. So you can go up to the wall, select a shoe on a virtual shelf, pull the product (image) and look at it from any angle,” says Krista Napier, a senior analyst at IDC Canada covering Canadian digital media and emerging technology.

Shoppers can also tap the virtual walls to see information like productdetails, customer reviews and Twitter comments on each shoe. Adidasplans to install the first adiVERSE walls in its Olympic village storeat the 2012 summer games in London.

“It’s a way to use (multitouch) on the retail side to engage customersand help drive sales, so we’d expect it to become more prevalent on theretail side,” Napier says.

Startup MaideInc. is already extending the iPad’s multitouch interfaceinto the enterprise space with Maide Control, an iPad app the Torontofirm released last week. The $5 app is targeted at architects,engineers and others who want the use their iPads to create 3D designs.

The iPad app doesn’t replace existing 3D design software on the market,but its multitouch interface is “a more intuitive method” ofcontrolling those software tools than traditional keyboards, says Maide software engineer Michael Petrov.“It’s for much, much better control of the 3D world. It helps withpresentations, it helps with modeling and ultimately it helps you bemore productive.”

Maide developed its iPad app because most people still don’t thinkof using the Apple tablet for anything other than portable Web surfingor watching videos, Petrov says. “(The iPad) shouldn’t just be a device to consume media, it should be adevice to allow you to do other things in your life.”

Today’s narrow perception of how tablets can be used will expand,McIntyre’s report predicts, as tablets move towards replacing someconsumer products entirely. A tablet docked in a car’s dashboard, forexample, can eliminate the need to buy separate navigation andentertainment systems for the vehicle, the study points out.

The report even suggests people will one day stop using wallets becausemost of the main contents– keys, bank cards, credit cards, receipts,driver’s licences and other identification cards – will be replaced oraccessed remotely by tablets. Carrying around bank and credit cardscould become unnecessary, the study says, since near field communications (NFC)technology allows people to make purchases by simply waving theirtablet or smartphone in front of a compatible reader.

Besides bank and credit cards, tablets could also threaten the existence of more traditional computing devices, the study warns.

“Thin-and-light mobile PCs with tablet-like features will become mainstream, pushing out some bulkier PC styles that have been the norm,” the report forecasts.

Ultrabooks – which have the portability of tablets but often more business functionality — will benefit from the tablet-led trend towards, thinner, lighter computers, McIntyre predicts, and get even more popular as touchscreens and heartier batteries (with up to 12 hours of power starting in 2013, according to McIntyre) are added to some ultrabooks. Other future hybrid designs incorporating tablet portability and PC capability will include lightweight laptops with two hinged screens that open like a book, the report says.

Despite the popularity of the iPad and other tablets, “I don’t think it will spell the end of the traditional notebook,” says IDC’s Napier. “(A tablet) isn’t good enough for business users to do what they need to do.”

Since tablets are designed mainly for their portability and multimedia features, “when you need to be doing big documents and spreadsheets you’re going to do that (on another type of computer) once you get back home or to the office,” Napier says.

Although the multitouch interface is available on tablets and smartphones “there is no successful multitouch OS for PCs,” the report says. While Apple’s Mac OS X Lion, launched in July, could be the first one, and Microsoft is set to release Windows 8 next year, “without multitouch OSs on par with iOS and OS X Lion, the leadership position of Microsoft OSs may decline,” the study says.

In an interview from her San Jose, Calif. office, McIntyre said a lot is riding on Windows 8.

“Windows 8 will have the Metro user interface and that’s already available on smartphones, so that could become popular with users.We’ll see, but there’s a lot of promise with that,” McIntyre says.

Christine WongChristineWong is a Staff Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow her on Twitter,and join in the conversation on the IT BusinessFacebook Page.

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