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Surface computers: debunking Microsoft and Han

More on the 3D, tabletop UI

Around seven years ago the confluence of projector, webcam, and Macromedia Director plugin technologies enabled interaction design students across the world to start building experimental interactive tables. And they haven't stopped. The ubiquity of these interactive tables has led Regine Debatty, the editor of the multi-Webby-winning technology/design/art blog We Make Money Not Art, once a champion of such applications, to all but ban them from her site. Before Microsoft stake claims over software innovations in this particular domain, they may want to sift Regine's archive.

Implementation is not Innovation

The most pervasive myth in the 'multi-touch' arena, a myth ingrained in blogs and the writings of technology pundits who use blogs as their primary sources, is that Jeff Han's work at New York University is the real thing, as far as hardware innovation goes.

"Much of what the Gates coffee table does was being done years ago by Jeff Kan, a researcher at New York University," wrote John Naughton in the Observer.

Mr Han is clearly a talented engineer, but these claims are simply not true.

In the February 2007 edition of Fast Company magazine , Mr Han describes in great detail the process of invention of his system, and how, "Inspiration came in the form of an ordinary glass of water."

Well, this author's 'inspiration' came rather more prosaically - after less than 20 seconds of searching on Espacenet this morning - when I found patent US6061177. In this patent, filed in the US in 1996, a Mr Kenneth Fujimoto describes a multi-touch system consisting of a camera and a projector, mounted behind a panel which exhibits frustrated internal total reflection when touched.

Meanwhile, Mr Han has sat on his hands rather than fess up, or give credit where it's due. On his website he notes that frustrated total internal reflection (FTIR) is "familiar to the biometrics community".

In 2004, during an R&D collaboration with Novation EMS Ltd, I myself created a simple experimental prototype based on the FTIR effect. This involved building a custom digital camera around an LM9630 Image Sensor to enable low resolution but very high speed multi-touch detection, primarily for musical applications.

Microsoft and Han have most likely used higher resolution but off-the-shelf technologies. In the YouTube demo of the Surface, Bill Gates moves his hands fairly slowly and the response is quite sluggish, particularly towards the end of the video. It is more difficult to tell from the Jeff Han videos on YouTube whether or not the latencies within his system would frustrate certain high-speed real-time game and musical applications.

Ben Shneiderman, the colossus of human-computer interaction research, and reportedly not a Han fan, has praised him as a "great showman". And everyone seems to agree that Han is indeed a great implementer and illustrator of ideas, so hats off to him. But unfortunately the US Patent Office doesn't (yet) consider YouTube hits in the patent examination process. (Just give it time).

There is more to innovation than simple implementation. It is easy to throw money at slick demos, but valuable original ideas are harder to come by, and hard to recognise when they do.


Thanks to everyone who took the time to write to me. I was particularly intrigued by the DigitalDash - a tactile car dashboard multitouch interface.

Andrew Fentem has worked in and human-computer interaction research and hardware development for 15 years. His Spaceman Technologies is exhibiting a reconfigurable tactile multi-touch and multi-object tracking interface at the Kinetica Museum, the UK's electronic art museum, in London until 29 June 2007.

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