Touch screen technology, 15 years ago

Today, also thanks to the advent of iPhone, touch-screen and multi-touch technologies have never been so popular. People like to finger-point, and if an interface hasn’t some part involving gestures or touching or tapping or tap-dragging, it isn’t cool enough.

I knew touch-screen wasn’t invented just yesterday. What I did not remember was that something of that kind was available for the Mac fifteen years ago. Another search in my small pile of MacUser magazines uncovered a product review by Nigel Grey in the August 6, 1993 issue. Mac ‘n’ Touch by MicroTouch is “a touch screen which fits a wide range of monitor sizes”.

From the review:

MicroTouch’s Mac ‘n’ Touch is aimed particularly at programs that require screen-pointing using your finger, rather than finer control using a stylus. This kind of approach is useful for educational purposes, using Apple’s At Ease interface, say, or in a point-of-information system where the user can interact with the program without having to use a keyboard or a mouse.

The Mac ‘n’ Touch uses a capacitive sensor rather than pressure, which means it will only work with your finger rather than a plastic stylus, for instance. However, a special stylus which has the same capacitive effect as human flesh will be available soon from MicroTouch for around £15.

The monitor used for the test and the review was a then-discontinued 13-inch Apple Colour Display, but according to MicroTouch the touch-sensitive screen could be installed on monitors ranging from 9” to 21”. Don’t think this add-on screen was something ugly-looking, like some anti-glare covers we used to see on many PCs and Macs of the era:

The whole installation is inside the monitor’s case, and the only difference you’ll notice is a socket at the back of the case which connects the screen into the ADB port. […] The monitor connects normally to the video card or built-in video, and MicroTouch will upgrade your existing monitor or supply a new one with Mac ‘n’ Touch already installed.

The driver software includes a control panel, which lets you calibrate the screen by simply touching the four corners of it.

A procedure Newton users are quite familiar with, by the way.

The preference controls allow you to set the cursor offset, so you can determine its distance from the end of your fingertip, and choose how the screen responds to taps: for example, whether an application opens with one tap or two.

The interface has various modes of operation: Liftoff, Tap, and Drag. The first acts like a mouse button would: with the finger on the screen, the ‘button’ is down, while lifting the finger registers a click. Tap mode is used to drag objects and pull menus down by keeping the finger on screen; the clicking is made by lifting the finger and tapping the screen again. The Drag mode is similar to the other modes, but if you want to select-drag and highlight you do something again very similar to a gesture that also the Newton featured (albeit using a stylus): you hold your pointing device, the finger, and drag.

The verdict on the Mac ‘n’ Touch was generally positive:

Overall, the Mac ‘n’ Touch worked very well. The only problem was that our screen had an optional anti-reflective coating, which was great at cutting out reflection but interfered slightly with the Trinitron tube’s shadow mask wires, which produced a slight shimmering on the screen. But, if you are going to use Mac ‘n’ Touch as a multimedia front end, where people aren’t going to stare at it for hours, then this shouldn’t be a problem.

Of course, in 1993, this was quite an expensive technology. The upgrade for 9-inch to 17-inch screens was £918; for 17-inch to 21-inch screens, £968. And a 14-inch monitor complete with touch-sensitive screen was £1,395.

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