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Mad Ramblings of FatDave
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The HP TouchSmart PC

HP’s got an advertising blitz going on for their new touchscreen interface PC. It looks pretty damn cool on the commercials, and I mean come on, is the mouse really the best input device we can come up with?

But the thing is, despite HP’s Hudsuckeresque “Touch the Future Now” slogan, this has actually been tried before. Back in the 80′s. I was a computer geek long before it was cool, and I remember the first time touch screens and light pens were all the rage. So if this awesome futuristic technology is actually over 30 years old, how come we’re still using the shitty old mouse?

Well, let’s try an experiment. Pretend you’re reading this post on a touchscreen. Pretend that you can navigate just by touching links. There should be a whole shitload over there on the right. Spend five minutes touching the links, pretending to navigate around. I’ll wait.

Now, how does your arm feel? Is it sore? Does it ache? Congratulations! You’ve got gorilla arm!

Gorilla arm was a side-effect that destroyed vertically-oriented touch-screens as a mainstream input technology despite a promising start in the early 1980s. Designers of touch-menu systems failed to notice that humans are not built to hold their arms at waist- or head-height, making small and precise motions. After a short period of time, cramp may begin to set in, and arm movement becomes painful and clumsy — the operator looks like a gorilla while using the touch screen and feels like one afterwards. This is now considered a classic cautionary tale to human-factors designers; “Remember the gorilla arm!” is shorthand for “How is this going to fly in real use?”. Gorilla arm is not a problem for specialist short-term-use devices such as ATMs, since they only involve brief interactions which are not long enough to cause gorilla arm. Gorilla arm also can be mitigated by the use of horizontally-mounted screens such as those used in Tablet PCs, but these need to account for the user’s need to rest their hands on the device. This can increase the amount of dirt deposited on the device, and occludes the user’s view of the screen.

There’s an old saying about those who don’t learn from history being doomed to repeat it. Or maybe there’s a marketing saying about how most people won’t remember the failed technology of the past and they might buy some expensive hardware until the lessons are relearned. At any rate, we’ve been here before, and there’s a very good reason these things didn’t catch on the first time.

13 Comments
FatDave 2008/11/26 13:17:10

OK, I struggled with the gorilla arm link a bit deciding whether to link to Wikipedia or the Jargon File. I went with Wikipedia becasue it contained more information, but I feel I sacrificed some geek cred in doing so.

Interestingly, it seems like a big chunk of the Wikipedia gorilla arm section comes directly from the Jargon File. Rather than getting involved with wikipolitics, I’m just going to assume ESR edited the article.

Dale 2008/11/26 17:56:15

I’ve been thinking lately about computer input, and how little movement and effort it takes, especially the mouse. It’s almost magical! I make tiny movements with my hand, and the cursor goes all over the screen.

I also have a tablet for making artwork. It still seems better to have a vertical screen and an horizontal input page. There’d be no particular advantage to being able to draw directly on the screen, as far as I can tell. Plus, my screen stays clean, free of grease and scratches!

A multi-touch tablet would be nice, though. To be able to zoom by pinching and all that. Just don’t make me do it right on the screen.

larry 2008/11/26 20:53:29

Wow. This is a pretty cool article. I know I loved my brief time with the WACOM Bamboo, and probably will return to it someday.

Gorilla Arm- THAT’S a geeky band name!

L

jbk 2008/12/01 13:11:20

Still, I remain amazed that the “mouse” supplanted its predecessor “trackball”. A “mouse” is merely a “trackball” turned upside down where you have to move the entire assembly to “roll” the “ball”.

For less strain and motion, you can’t beat a trackball/touchpad.

But just try finding one…..

Petkov 2008/12/01 14:14:11

Easy solution to the “gorilla arm” problem: the monitors will be a screen sitting flatly on top of the desk instead of the vertical ones we have now. Problem solved. Geez, and you are supposed to be a geek. Took me 10 seconds to come with the solution. Please, next time, think a bit before writing, ey? Will make you appear less of a fool.

FatDave 2008/12/01 16:30:25

Geez Petkov, think you could be more of a dick? I’ll bet you can if you really try.

Brian 2008/12/01 16:42:55

That is what is wrong with the “desktop” analogy – desktops aren’t vertical. The single best thing since I started using computers ( back in the TRS-80 days ) are those desk where the monitor in mounted underneath the real desktop, and viewed through a glass window. If there was a compromise to make workstation surfaces and touchscreens a single flat surface, then tilted a bit like a drafting table it would ( almost ) work well. Again, real paperwork is easy to move around, angle, pick up, and put down, even bend and twist while screens are not. I suppose having what you need in front of your eyes and easily interfacing with one’s hands has been a problem ever since the fist typewriter.

surferdave 2008/12/01 18:38:58

HP also used touchscreens in their excellent test equipment back in the ’90s. I liked it a lot, it was very simple grid of IR beams just above the surface of the CRO and it was reliable. I thought it was a cool interface until I met a guy who’d used them in Sth America and he said they had endless problems with insects landing on the screens and messing up their measurements!

Rich 2008/12/01 22:48:03

@pekov, having a horizontal screen lessens the gorilla arm syndrome, but does not do away with it since you still have to hold your arm up to be able to move it to the screen extents. It also introduces neck and upper back strain since you have to tilt your head down to look at what you are doing. I had those upper back and neck issues until I elevated my monitor so that it is at eye level, and having to tilt my head down even further to see a screen flat on the desk surface would not make me happy.

Touchscreen PC’s are solution in search of a problem.

Uninformed Luddite 2008/12/02 19:55:58

Being an uninformed Luddite I would just like to comment that I like the mouse. i think it is an efficient solution and even though it is old (i can remember using one on a Micro-Vax back in the days when I could look at pretty young girls without feeling like a sick old perv).
I think that with a bit of work those glasses that monitor where your eyeballs are looking (think helicopter gunship) would be a pretty cool way of doing it but would probably require a bit of fine tuning as a chain gun and a LCD screen just don’t mix (unless you are using Vista or ME).
Just some input from a luddite ;)

G.O. Rilla 2008/12/25 02:52:44

Damn. If we just were as smart as Mr. Petkov! No seriously, nothing beats a good sales pitch pulled out of the rubbish container of bad decisions from 30yrs ago. Indeed there are a few applications that benefit from horizontal touchscreens, mostly in fixed, specialized installations/devices/housing/furniture for that application, like a music keyboard/digital audio workstation maybe. Tablet PCs for surfing the web on the couch. Generally a good *feature* for portable devices, but not their future.

For everything else in everydays normal computer operation, watching movies, playing games, the horizontal touch screen usability ranges from suboptimal to “man that sucks gorilla balls”. Put your flatscreen TV flat on the floor and see what your family thinks of it. It’s not the future of computing, it’s the past of which marketing dipshits generally don’t know jack of.

G.O. Rilla 2008/12/25 03:02:28

Oh, and I forgot to add: While considerations of *horizontal* touchscreens are legit, this vertical gorilla arm touch screen HP thing seems to be a good example for “contageous marketing brain decay infects all other departments in a company”. I was going to buy me a HP laptop in the next days. Now I have to rethink my decision. There seem to be real noobs designing stuff for them.

FatDave 2008/12/25 08:34:51

@G.O. Rilla: While I completely agree with you in spirit, I don’t know if I’d rule out an HP laptop just because of a braindead marketing decision likely elsewhere in the company. Shop around and buy the one you like, but keep in mind that the phrase “One year later, I’m totally glad I bought this Compaq laptop,” is rarely uttered.

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