Multitouch trackpads need new cursor rules

The latest Mac rumour is that Apple will announce a multitouch trackpad for desktop Macs.

For this new device to be useful, Apple needs to define how multitouch works when you don’t look at what you’re touching, but need to be accurate. At the moment, you can use MacBook touch pad gestures for a variety of commands (previous page, next page, scaling), but these instructions don’t require accuracy of fingertip positioning.

In order for us not to look at the ‘magical’ touchpad we’re using with our Macs, we need to know where our touches would land in the user interface of the current application if we touched the pad in a specific position. That means we can look at the monitors we already have, but still get the benefits of multitouch manipulation.

In August of 2007, Apple patented a multitouch interface for a portable computer that uses a camera to detect where a person’s hands are before they touch the trackpad or keyboard.

Illustration from Apple's 2007 Multitouch patent featuring a camera detecting where a user's hands are when not touching the trackpad.

Now that we have a device for detecting where our fingertips are, Apple need to update the UI guidelines to allow for multiple cursors (one for each fingertip) and let fingers not touching the trackpad still send a ‘hover’ message to user interface items.

For example, they could use filled and unfilled circles to show where fingertips are. Unfilled to show where fingertips are hovering over the trackpad, filled to show contact:

A screenshot from Final Cut showing a fingertip touching one edit and another hovering over a different edit.

In this Final Cut example, one fingertip is touching an edit, another is hovering over a different edit. To select more than one edit, editors hold down the option key and click additional edits. In a multitouch UI, the editor could hold down a fingertip on the first edit and tap the other edits to extend the selection:
Final Cut screenshot showing four edits selected

The hovering fingertip circles could also show the context of what would happen if the user touched. Here’s an example from Avid:
Mockup of multitouch UI extensions to an Avid screenshot.

Here the editor has their left hand over the multitouch trackpad. The index finger is touching, so its red circle is filled. As we are in trim mode the current cursor for the index finger is the B-side roller because it is touching a roller. The other fingers are almost touching. They are shown with unfilled circles with faint cursors that are correct based on where they are on the screen: the middle and ring fingers have arrow cursors, if the little (pinky) finger touches, then it would be trimming the A-side roller.

Once you can directly manipulate the UI using multiple touch points, you’ll be able to get rid of even short-lived modes. I wrote about gestural edits back in 2007.

Ironically, once Apple does provide multitouch UI extensions to OS X, then the concepts of hovering, ‘mouseenter’ and ‘mouseleave’ can be added to Flash-based UIs for those using multitouch devices. Oh well!

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