The annual Society for Information Displays (SID) Display Week International Symposium and Exhibition is the premier annual showcase for an industry that, according to SID, is valued at just over $100 billion annually. This year’s event, which took place at the start of June, had over 250 exhibitors and saw more than 6500 attendees flock to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in Massachusetts. I was one of those visitors and this year, for the first time I left with less of a sense of awe and more of a sense of disappointment.
We all know that as industries mature there is a greater tendency towards evolution rather than revolution - so maybe it’s no surprise in a year that sees SID celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, this year’s show saw a lot of emphasis on the latest versions of existing technologies and the commercialisation of previous years’ innovations. Yes, the screens were bigger and better; yes resolutions continue to improve; yes OLED and 3D can now be considered mainstream; and yes P-CAP is now a given as the dominant touch technology for small-to-medium-sized displays. But I was left wondering: “Where are all the new and innovative ways to apply the technology?”
It seems that the sector, or at least what the show represented as the ‘face’ of the sector, is now more about the maturing of technologies, with awards, for example, for best panel from LG, best P-CAP touch sensor from Occular and Samsung’s latest OLED display. Conversation was just as likely to be about achieving economies of scale, better ways to manufacture or the trend for vertical integration of the manufacturing chain rather than the unveiling of lots of revolutionary product technology or innovative applications and GUI approaches using the technology. My over-riding feeling was that at last years SID for example, there were a lot more exciting multi touch GUI implementations (such as applications shown by Perceptive Pixel and 3M), which brought the technology to life. And as someone who gets very excited by the ‘thrill of the new’ especially with regards to the application of graphical user interfaces and specifically multi touch – a technology which Gartner claim will be one of the most disruptive technologies of the decade - I was disappointed that most people I spoke to seemed limited in terms of explaining where and how they feel the latest interface technologies will be used beyond the buzz words of ‘collaboration, medical, education’ and the like.
From my perspective, the success and failure of today’s and tomorrow’s product offerings will continue to be less about product functionality, and more about underlying user experience, of which the display interface experience or DX (the display, touch and underlying computing hardware, integrated with an easy, intuitive and enjoyable GUI) will possibly be the most influential single element for end users. This is an issue that I believe is particularly important in the ‘non-consumer’ device world, our specific focus area, where most of the time neither the money nor the volumes are comparable with consumer products, but where there is still a growing drive for the same ‘iPhone-type’ interface experiences in new product designs (just with more discipline about ensuring that new technology introductions offer truly beneficial functional improvements for the specific application, making a specific job/ task easier, faster, more accurate and more efficient, as opposed to simply adding gimmicky multi touch gestures).
As an organisation, andersDX is acting on these ‘market needs’, trying hard to influence next generation user experience by taking various new interface trends and technologies - such as multi touch and gestures - and helping customers to apply them in genuinely beneficial and innovative ways to differentiate their applications and drive market success. We see, for example, that whilst there has been massive proliferation of touchscreen use in many areas, there are still many companies around the world that continue to develop non-consumer, professional software applications - including business management/enterprise, design, engineering, security solutions and many more - that are optimised only for traditional mouse and keyboard environments. Now don’t get me wrong, the keyboard and mouse will continue to have a very important usability role in many areas, so it’s not about ‘multi touching’ every and any piece of software. However, there are many applications where there truly would be great benefit, enhanced productivity and greater enjoyment for users, from taking a step back and re-thinking the interface approach – revolution rather than evolution.
Over the last few years, we have certainly seen a much greater desire from customers wanting to embrace multi touch and other complementary technologies, sometimes driven indirectly by end users that are heavily influenced by the use of new consumer technology, sometimes from a new generation of ‘iPhone era’ developers who are looking to the future, and sometimes from the influence of user interface companies such as andersDX that proactively encourage customers to embrace new technologies that support and encourage other methods of interaction. This desire certainly opens up new opportunities for creative, intuitive user interfaces that enhance and optimise the overall user experience. However, exploiting those opportunities requires a paradigm shift in the approach to overall product design (especially for many non-consumer, small-medium sized companies). This may mean for the first time, allocating resources to new areas such as user experience, recognising the need to change or amend certain design processes (e.g. starting with the GUI and working backwards) and accessibility to new competencies and skill sets such as experienced GUI designers.
In fact, I suspect that one of the challenges of delivering enhanced UIs is that for many non-consumer applications it is the design engineer who is tasked with not only developing the application but also designing the user interface. As we have said before in this Blog (Top 5 Mistakes of User Interface Design), programming a GUI is not the same as GUI design and it can often be better to employ or work with an interface specialist than leave this critical aspect of product design to the software development team.
But anyway, back to Display Week and something I did find interesting and innovative and that may well make a difference to the user experience in the future. Hidden away in the show’s Innovation Zone was a new form of tactile touch-screen technology unveiled by a Fremont, Calif.-based startup, Tactus Technology. Tactus’ approach enables touch screens to change their physical appearance and actually ‘standout’ of the screen. They use something called ‘microfluidics’ whereby they replace the conventional top layer of a touch screen with a flexible membrane inside which tiny amounts of special oil are pumped through small channels to "inflate" the keys and buttons, providing ‘real’ tactile objects to press. When you're done, the oil drains away and the membrane, in theory, flattens out and disappears, to become a flat touch screen again.
Away from the exhibition floor there were also some good conferences and exhibitions. ‘The Future of Touch & Interactivity’ conference, for example, took a look at how touch and interactive solutions are shaping the display industry and included insights from industry-renowned developers including Steven Bathiche, the Director of Research at Microsoft. Another company talking there that got my interest was Oblong and it’s worth checking out their videos of some great ‘Minority Report’ type technology for spatial operating environments and collaborative working in real time with people in different locations.
Maybe I’m being a little negative on the show. As always, it was organised brilliantly, there was a lot to see and I understand the technical symposiums were great. It’s just that at andersDX, while we want to be up-to-date on the latest technology trends and where the markets are going in the years ahead, we are perhaps more driven to learn how we can effectively apply and integrate the commercially and technically viable technologies that are available today in truly innovative and useful ways. And for us, I guess the one we’re really excited about and focusing on in-depth, is multi touch for the non consumer space, with particular interest in medium-sized (up to 30”) solutions, balancing touch, display and embedded computing technology with innovative, next-generation GUI design and novel gestures.
So the question is will I be at SID 2014 in Vancouver, or is it time to find a multi touch conference or more generic show focusing on the future of UX? Either way, it’s great to see a growing market and at least a growing recognition that application of technology and user experience is key.