The Engineering Newsletter

Alum inspires new generation of human-technology interactions

  Gestural interfaces

By Shilpa Gantotti

Gestural interfaces—a system that senses and reacts to gestures without the aid of a traditional pointing device like a keyboard—have become a part of everyday life. For instance, this technology installed in automatic dispensers places the ideal amount of soap in the user’s hand when the hand is sensed. Serving an innumerable number of functions, gestural interfaces are found in everything from office printers to the Nintendo Wii and even “The Clapper”, a sound-activated electrical switch made popular in the 1980s.

Users of touchscreen portable devices such as the Apple iPhone or the Palm Pre will appreciate the multi-touch system, a gestural interface developed in the early 1980s by U of T researchers within the Computer Systems Research Group. Among these researchers was K.C. Smith, former Chair of The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, award-winning Engineering professor, world-renowned author and alumnus.

For the first time in an exciting history of gestural interfaces, the Group designed a touch-sensitive tablet capable of sensing the degree of contact with the tablet in a continuous manner while sensing the locations of simultaneous points of contact. These functions greatly increased the quality of interactions users could have with the tablet.

Bill Buxton, one of the Group’s researchers writes, “During the development of the iPhone, Apple was very much aware of the history of multi-touch, dating back to at least 1982, and the use of the pinch gesture, dating back to 1983.”

Several other companies also took note of the seemingly limitless possibilities for multi-touch application. In the 2000s, hundreds of commercial products emerged, including those that integrated multi-touch technology into pads (e.g. Apple iTouch), displays (e.g. Microsoft Surface) and notebooks (e.g. Dell Latitude XT).

To read more about the Group’s original work on the multi-touch tablet in the 1980s, please see: Lee, S.K., Buxton, W. & Smith, K.C.: A Multi-Touch Three Dimensional Touch-Sensitive Tablet. In Proceedings of the 1985 Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems, CHI ’85, San Francisco, April, 1985, 21-26 (1985).


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