Tech Trends: feature article
Now is the Time for Touch
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch…”
– Leo F. Buscaglia
Touch. In high-tech circles, the word conjures up images of technology at its most innovative. In a few short years, products like Apple’s iPod and iPhone have brought touch gestures to a mass consumer market. Visually appealing and intuitive, these products beg to be touched, and with a simple tap of a finger, they respond. SMART’s touch-enabled products for education work in a similar manner. The SMART Board interactive whiteboard and the SMART Table are both touch-enabled, responsive, easy to use and effective. They have also been used to improve teaching and learning in classrooms throughout the world since 1991.
For nearly 14 years, the evolution of SMART touch technology has been shepherded by SMART’s external research manager, Gerald Morrison, who has become an internationally recognized expert on touch technology and is named in many patents and patent applications. Morrison believes humans are naturally touch oriented. “It’s very satisfying being able to control a machine or to interact with a device without any special tools,” he says. “There’s something innately pleasing about that.”
“In a world where everywhere you go, there are signs that say ‘Do not touch,’ SMART says ‘Please touch.’ And that’s such a different message. SMART says, ‘Touch. Engage. We’re ready for you.’”
External Research Manager
Touch provokes an innate feeling of satisfaction in users, and with SMART Board interactive whiteboards, a touch is all users need to interact with and control the content displayed. “Our roots at SMART,” says Morrison, “have always been about making our products simple to use.” And what could be simpler than a touch?
Ease of use, researchers note, influences and determines the way people interact with technology products. A 2004 study completed by researchers from Wilfrid Laurier University, Brock University, the University of Waterloo and the University of Western Ontario compared direct and indirect computer input devices – mouse, EZ ball, touch pad and touch screen – and the ways in which preschool children use them.
For an in-depth look at the study, see “Assessing the use of input devices for teachers and children in early childhood education programs,” published in Information Technology in Childhood Education Annual. The researchers define direct computer input devices as those that involve direct correspondence between what the user is doing and the goal. “A touch screen,” they state, “is a direct input device. When the user wants to select an icon, they just reach out and touch it. Thus, the touch screen requires little training, little hand-eye coordination, and minimal spatial demands.” Indirect input devices, they explain further, are more removed from the task, so they may affect one’s ability to use them effectively. Direct devices, the researchers found, are “perceived as easier because of their reduced cognitive demands.”
“All we have to believe with is our senses, the tools we use to
perceive the world – our sight, our touch, our memory.”
– Neil Gaiman
Examining the way humans interact with computers is a key area of interest for Sheelagh Carpendale, an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s department of computer science and founder of InnoVis, the institution’s Innovations in Visualization laboratory. Carpendale, along with her team of researchers, is at the forefront of research into tabletop computing and touch interaction. She believes the evolution of user interaction with digital content – from keystrokes to mouse clicks and now to touch – will have profound implications on how humans experience information. “When people can actually put their hands on their own data, and can touch it, they feel in contact again,” says Carpendale. “There is nothing in between – they are touching it.”
That nothing-in-between effect, says Morrison, is one of many reasons that SMART leads the global interactive whiteboard product category and has succeeded in placing more SMART Board interactive whiteboards in classrooms around the world than anyone else. “When a machine engages somebody through touch, whether that is a student or a teacher, and it impels them to interact, they become the master of the machine. That’s quite a compelling scenario,” Morrison says. “At the very least, it’s an attention-getter, and anytime you can get someone’s attention – that helps them remember what it is they saw, they heard or they felt.”
“When people can actually put their hands on their own data, and can touch it, they feel in contact again. There is nothing in between – they are touching it.”
Assistant Professor, Department of Computer Science
University of Calgary
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
For Alan Siegel, a high school history, civics and economics teacher at W.C. Carlé Continuation High School in Lake County, California, touch interaction creates interest and engagement. Siegel has found this to be especially true when his students use the SMART Board interactive whiteboard to analyze and review primary historical documents in his senior American history class. “Everything comes together when I have my SMART Board and the Internet and my students are interacting with the information,” says the 2005 California State Teacher of the Year and SMART Exemplary Educator. “Amazing stuff happens. They grab onto the content and they don’t forget it.”
That comes as no surprise to Morrison, who equates touch with engagement, and engagement with learning. “In my experience, when someone touches something, they start owning the information. They learn it. They explore it. They understand it,” says Morrison. “That information becomes an extension of their fingertips and that’s a lot different than sitting back in a class and simply watching or listening and not interacting.”
It’s because of engagement that Siegel’s students clamor to use the interactive whiteboard during lessons. Siegel says that comes as a surprise to classroom visitors. “Board members and district administrators come into my classroom, and they are amazed by what the kids are doing up at the SMART Board.” It’s the simplicity of touch interactions, Siegel maintains, that makes such a difference to his students.
Touch isn’t going anywhere, says Carpendale. She believes people want and expect touch in their computing devices, and this expectation has become ingrained in the public mindset. Morrison agrees. According to research, he says, the more human senses are involved in an activity, the more meaningful and memorable the activity becomes. He keeps this idea front and center when developing tools for SMART. “In a world where everywhere you go, there are signs that say ‘Do not touch,’ SMART says ‘Please touch.’ And that’s such a different message. SMART says, ‘Touch. Engage. We’re ready for you.’”