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Touchscreen Response

My whimsical piece regarding an airplane touchscreen caught the eye of Touch International. They make touchscreens for airplanes and cars and other high-rel applications; they’ve been doing this for a long time. (I honestly don’t know if they made the screen I was whacking on.)

We met at the Interactive Technology Summit (erstwhile Touch Gesture Motion). It was interesting to contrast our discussion with some of the other things that I was hearing at the show. Touch Int’l makes all their own touchscreens, but they don’t lead the industry in R&D; to use CEO Michael Woolstrum’s phrase, they’re more about “applied science,” using established technologies in custom applications at moderate volumes.

And yet, while folks in the conference presentations talk about someday being able to do curved touchscreens, apparently Touch Int’l has been doing them since the 80s. To be clear, that’s “1D” curved, such as might come off of a roll. 2D curved, which you could fit over a spheroidal sort of shape, is coming, but isn’t here yet. For Touch Int’l or anyone else.

We also discussed the implications of touchscreens in some of the applications they address. Cars, for instance, presumably in an attempt to attract people with pseudo-whiz-bang cool-looking technology, have dropped all the easy-to-use knobs we (or our forebears) used to use intuitively. Instead, we’re faced with impenetrable GUIs that we must learn anew for each car, taking valuable time away from minor things like looking at the road.

I asked what the benefit of that really was (and, to be clear, this is pre-office-and-hometheater-in-the-car center stack), and apparently electronics are more reliable. I cocked my head a bit at that: phones used to be robust (you know, the old black Ma Bell ones that you could drop with impunity?) and they advertised that fact. Until they went more electronic. (I actually had a phone store salesman specifically say that the vaunted reliability no longer applied to new phones… this in the 80s.) And I owned a Mercedes at one point that seemed to need a lot of work. I talked to another Mercedes owner who crowed about the reliability. When I asked further, he clarified: the old ones were reliable; the newer ones with electronics were not. And I’ve never owned a car where the (now electronic) radio wasn’t the first thing to fail.

So hearing that electronic versions are more robust than the mechanical ones surprised me. I just assumed they were cheaper or looked cool or something… Mr. Woolstrum did agree that they can be confusing to use. In fact, he proposed a compromise that he thought optimal: putting mechanical controls over a touchscreen. That combines the ease-of-use and familiarity of knobs and such over a touchscreen that actually does the work. Interesting idea.

So next time I’m banging away at a touchscreen in a car or in a plane, I’ll have a name and a face to associate with it. And they’ll probably wonder whether that’s a good thing…

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