Last month, NextWindow Ltd (NW) unveiled a new series of multi-touch screen overlays at an exhibition in Orlando, Florida. The 2700 model overlays could simply be strapped on to an existing LCD or plasma display and then connected to a Windows 7 computer to create a full-function, touch-screen computer. Users could zoom in and out of images with two fingers, and spin them by rotating one finger around another. We recently spoke to Antony Uhrick, a vice-president at NW, via email about the future of fit-and-function optical touch overlays. Edited excerpts:
Contact: NextWindow optical overlays add touch capabilities cheaply and quickly.
Tell us a little bit about NextWindow and its products.
NW is a New Zealand-based company started in 2001. The original products were designed for the education market to help disabled students navigate a PC. The company had its initial success with the HP TouchSmart.
But now the perfect storm is brewing. Displays are dropping in cost, Microsoft announced that one of the key features of Windows 7 will be multi-touch, and with the success of devices like the iPhone, consumers are demanding more touch-screen products.
Unlike the touch screens in devices such as iPhones, NextWindow products use something called optical touch. How is it different from other touch technology?
Optical touch uses optical scanners on the corners of the screen with infrared illumination to detect touch. When anything approaches very close to the screen and disrupts the infrared light, the scanners pick this up. And then the information from multiple scanners is used to figure out where the touch happened. The optical touch system can detect multiple touches in this way. Unlike resistive and capacitive screens on products like the iPhone, there are no coatings or laminated layers to distort the image; it uses clear glass. What makes it popular for consumer electronics is the cost/benefit quotient. It allows manufacturers to add the feature at a cost that the consumer is willing to pay.
The best thing is that the overlay can be placed on top of any display to activate the touch sensing.
Are there any disadvantages to using an optical touch method as opposed to capacitive and resistive screens?
Optical touch is typically not suitable for portable or mobile devices. Since it is an edge-based detection system, the optical sensor adds height to the display, which is exactly the opposite of what the industrial designers want as they move towards slimmer devices.
Tell us a little bit about the latest 2700 model launch.
The NextWindow 2700 series (32-65 inches) is an overlay designed to fit over a standard monitor enclosure and quickly mounts using adjustable straps. Installation is simple—no software to load, and no tools required. One of the newest features is Windows 7 Multi Touch compatibility, making the 2700 overlay one of the first multi-touch products developed for large-format displays.
Do you see such plug-and-play displays becoming a regular peripheral like the mouse and keyboards in the near future?
I think it is very reasonable to assume that touch screens will become a standard peripheral. Two things I think will help drive this trend: a reduction in price and applications that are designed for touch. Ideally, the cost becomes low enough that a computer maker chooses to include the touch sensor rather than have multiple iterations of the same product with and without touch.
Currently you are pegging the products on the new Windows 7 operating system. How important are specific operating systems to the optical touch overlay?
For basic mouse control, the optical touch screen will work on Linux, Mac and Windows—from XP to Windows 7. For multi-touch, however, Windows 7 has incorporated the feature in the OS (operating system). So for us, Windows 7 is very important because it is the multi-touch feature that sets the technology apart from the others. In fact, we are one of the few companies that have even achieved Microsoft Logo Certification for Windows 7.
Finally, when will consumers in India get a chance to check out some cool overlays?
The overlay will be available for order on 31 July and it will be available worldwide, including India. We could use a recommendation for a distributor, though...