The Multi-touch Revolution

Wired Magazine just published an article about large multi-touch displays entering production.  I first saw the multi-touch display on Jeff Han’s TED Talk, embedded here:

And subsequently, I’ve had a chance to meet and talk with Jeff twice, at Educon 2.1 and 2.2 in Philadelphia. While we’ve all seen this display at work during election coverage on CNN and other networks, it is simply amazing in person. At Educon 2.2 in January, I got to actually play with one of the screens, and shot video as Jeff explained how it works to a high school student.  Here’s the video:

The simple math behind the idea of being able to move and interact with graphics is interesting. The effect is ground breaking and game changing. What you quickly realize is that touching a display allows you to interact with data in a very natural and visceral way. You can sort it quickly, look for patterns, and understand information in a hierarchical way, being able to drill down into a data set- election returns, for example- instantly, and the story changes as you look at different levels of the data.  You can start looking at turn outs per polling place, per county, per region- and this information, displayed graphically, gives you an almost intuitive sense, immediately, of what’s really going on.  A broader view of Red State v. Blue State means less when you see how divided things can be in one state based on population density alone, or how many separate “microclimates” of voters there actually are.

Now take this and think how interesting it would be if you could do this with, say, census data.  Health statistics.  What if you find out that one area in town, say one zip code, has a higher than normal obesity rate compared to neighboring zipcodes?  If ou are a business, you might want to plop down a gym or a Weight Watchers in that area.  You might look at the grocery stores and availability of healthy choices.  What if there are more preterm babies? Maybe yo need more prenatal nutrition information there, or focus on door to door samples of prenatal vitamins. Maybe it’s an environmental factor, like ground water? As a government, you might want to concentrate more effort in that area on outreach or disease prevention efforts if flu cases are unusually high in one area.  The more we can take large, complicated data sets and apply graphic displays that help us identify patterns, that allow us to parse data and make it useful and meaningful, the better decisions we’ll be able to make.

When you see the iPad, and start playing with one (and it does feel like play) the more you realize how important touching data really is. And you realize why it’s how we’re going to be interacting with technology now and in the future. It feels right. There’s no barrier erected between you and information – it flows, and it can be easily shared. Having your hands on information is part of making it real.  While I could go on and on why this is true from a cognitive and developmental stand point, this post is probably geeky enough as it is. But let’s leave it that multitouch displays and the ability to interact with data directly are going to become more and more prevalent in our world, and they will change the way we think about interacting with technology and information.

The only frustration is the length of time it will take to make this widely available. Because the future is here, but it’s going to take a while to be able to scale and make it affordable. Wired’s article suggests that the prices will start coming down soon, as these screens become commercially produced. People may not immediately understand its power, but the iPad is going to go a long way towards making the importance of this kind of interaction with data more obvious.

I can’t wait for what’s next.

Thanks again to Jeff Han, Chris Lehman, The Science Leadership Academy, and everyone else, including the School District of Philadelphia for making Educon one of the most exciting conferences I attend every year.

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