Are These Microsoft Research Demos the Future of the Tablet PC?

By  |  Friday, May 7, 2010 at 9:45 am

Maybe the Tablet PC isn’t dead. Maybe it’s just resting.

If the marketplace is your yardstick, the machine Bill Gates once predicted would become the world’s dominant computing device by 2006 definitively flopped  years ago. But a few days ago during a Fox Business News interview, Gates said that Microsoft hadn’t given up on Tablet PCs and stylus-based input. Yesterday, I attended TechFair, a event the company held at its Silicon Valley campus to show off lab projects from Microsoft Research, which employees 850 researchers in eight locations around the world. Among the demos I saw was proof that it’s still investing in the idea.

A sign next to the demes carried the tagline: “Everything, including TOUCH, is best for something and WORST for something else.” Very true. Rightly or wrongly, I got somewhat defensive vibes from the statement given that Microsoft has invested so hugely in pen-based computing, but it’s touch–largely associated with Apple–that’s caught on.

Steve Jobs would probably disagree, but Microsoft has a point. Fingers are wonderful, but they’re also stubby and imprecise: If handwriting recognition ever works well and catches on, it’s going to involve a pen of some sort. And as much as I’m enjoying using painting programs such as Autodesk SketchBook Pro on the iPad, drawing with your fingertip feels more like fingerpainting than drawing. (The Pogo stylus is a clever kludge, but it only helps so much.)

Microsoft’s demos were being shown on a touch-screen Dell laptop with special drivers that let it accept input from both fingertips and pens. (The fact that the computer is a traditional notebook rather than a tablet doesn’t mean anything–it was the research that was been shown off, not the device.) And Microsoft’s new big idea is that using both fingers and a stylus is better than either method alone.

The Microsoft researcher I spoke with said that Microsoft Research staffers analyzed video of people using pen and paper to perform various tasks. They noticed that those folks tended to work with two hands and use their fingers a lot–for instance, to reposition the paper under the pen as they worked. And the demos involved touch as a compliment to the pen.

For instance, here’s a natural-media painting program. The researcher is using a stylus to paint on the screen, and his fingers to move the “canvas” around:

Another demo involved a Microsoft Surface computing table and gestures which combined stylus and finger input. Here’s the researcher “holding down” a photo with his finger–he’s about to use a (rather chunky) stylus as a virtual X-acto knife to cleanly slice off part of the photo.

All of these demos show basic research–stuff that’s in early, raw form. It may or may not lead to shipping products, and if it does those products may express ideas from the research in ways that have little in common with the tricks Microsoft was performing at TechFair.

Nothing in the demos instantly knocked my socks off. In a way, though, it was more impressive than the much flashier, recently-nixed Courier tablet, which seemed to be Microsoft’s concept of a next-generation Tablet PC. We don’t know whether Courier was anything more than some slick animated sequences and renderings. But these pen-and-touch interfaces are real, albeit experimental. I wonder if they’ll ever get as far as a Steve Ballmer CES keynote, let alone store shelves?

 
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10 Comments For This Post

  1. John Baxter Says:

    MS may actually be right. But there will be a lot of iPads and Android-based tablets and perhaps WebOS-based tablets released, likely most sans styli, before this escapes Microsoft’s labs.

  2. Alec Perkins Says:

    As long as they keep the stylus in an only-when-precision-needed role. Needing a stylus for primary input is not the way to go.

    PS I was totally disappointed by the “death” of the Courier. I’ve been waiting for a true digital notebook forever.

  3. Becca Says:

    I like this “two-handed” approach to navigation. I’ve ended up using a pen tablet with my right hand and also trackball with my left, because navigation is easier with the trackball.

    I was also disappointed to see the Courier shelved. It looked quite intriguing and pretty usable.

  4. Zip Says:

    The future is now! Better nut up or shut up, yo!

  5. Mike Says:

    “Microsoft’s demos were being shown on a touch-screen Dell laptop with special
    drivers that let it accept input from both fingertips and pens.”

    You mean the standard drivers on Dell convertible tablets that allowed multi-touch or a stylus? For Pete’s sake, I had an off-the-shelf Latitude XT 2 years ago that did that!! http://www.dell.com/tablet

    @Alec: There is no “need” for stylus as primary navigation on one of these devices. This is old old news.

  6. joe c Says:

    Exactly: Steve Jobs’ statement is a bit exaggerated. I really think what he means is fingers should be the main method of accessing a tablet. But that still leaves the issue that Windows 7 is still designed for the desktop and mouse-clicking, not for tablets, no matter how much more “tablet-friendly” it is. They need a complete redesign for tablet use here, like Apple already has and Android and Palm will soon be.

  7. Mike Says:

    Lack of stylus for precise, written input is one of the main reasons I won’t go for a iPad (leaving out closed platform, iTunes sync, battery replacement, and media format lockout).

    For the stuff that requires a stylus, Jobs has no answer. I’ve been using Windows tablets for over 7 years and the iPad doesn’t match their capabilities.

    For all the browsing/reading stuff that is “better with fingers”, I can handle simply by tapping icons on a Windows 7 desktop today. That experience is not wildly superseded by the iPad and the other experiential and functional losses count against it.

  8. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    iPad does not lack a stylus, it’s an $8 add-on. Hardly anybody wants it, just like over the last 20 years.

    On a Mac, I don’t use a mouse, I use a Wacom airbrush for everything, but even so, I don’t want a stylus for iPad. You can draw a 1 pixel line with your finger, no problem.

    Everybody types now. Everybody. Most of us can barely write with a pen, especially not legibly. I can type many times faster on an iPhone than I can write with a pen.

    iPad has already outsold all other tablets, the whole 20 years worth. The people have spoken.

    No products have ever come out of Microsoft Research, which is simply a nerd fest. Windows and Office and Zune come out of Apple, XBox from Sony, Bing from Google and Yahoo. So please do not hold your breath for any actual products.

  9. Michel Pahud Says:

    Hello,

    If you are interested, you can see the TechFair demo of this project at: http://channel9.msdn.com/shows/TechFairSV/Manual-Deskterity–An-Exploration-of-Simultaneous-Pen–Touch-Direct-Input/

    Thank you so much!
    Michel

  10. It Jobs Blog Says:

    having both stylus and finger working on the touch screen could be revolutionary.. BUt Microsoft still needs to make the most out of it. With its recent release (Microsoft Courier) it seems that only geeks an nerds were enjoying the experience. Normal users prefered to stick to ther Ipad or Samsung Tab. Microsoft got a bright idea, but could be making their biggest mistake ever..

    Check this out: http://www.itjoblog.co.uk/2011/01/microsoft-table

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