Which is more important–being first to market or first to give a TED talk? One touch-screen researcher finds out.
Jeff Han, a researcher at New York University, gave a TED Talk on multitouch screens, and the audience went nuts. Then, to Han’s surprise, everyone else did as well: The video then went viral, turning Han into the face of a tech revolution. Han and other experts offer a minute-by-minute breakdown of the breakthrough talk.
0:55 Han makes it clear up front that multitouch is “not completely new.”
In fact, Bob Boie at Bell Labs built the first multitouch screen in 1984, and Toronto professor Bill Buxton also contributed influential early research. Han, who these days works for Microsoft, never meant to take credit. “I saw a video of a Buxton touch screen when I was seven years old and something stuck,” he says now.
1:08 Han says multitouch is “scalable.”
The iPhone soon proved him right, but “it’s not as if touching for your primary interaction sprang from Steve Jobs‘s brain,” says Brown University professor Andries van Dam. “Apple sure as hell relied on external knowledge.” That involved acquiring Wayne Westerman and John Elias’s technology in 2001.
2:00 Han says “multitouch inherently means multi-user.”
He means that screens can be used by multiple people at once–a revolution generally credited to Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs, which in 2001 developed a tabletop screen called DiamondTouch. But it was controversial: “There were arguments at the time that it was not a true touch display because it used projection,” van Dam says.
2:35 Han changes the size of photos with a pinch of his fingers.
Soon Apple would be embroiled in pinch-to-zoom patent controversies. But even in 2006, the technology was well established: Computer artist Myron Krueger developed the function and showed it off in the 1980s. “Krueger is one of the forgotten heroes,” says NYU professor Ken Perlin.
3:36 Han pulls up a digital keyboard onscreen.
Then he changes its size. “In the early ’80s, the belief was that touch screens had to have large buttons,” says computer scientist Ben Shneiderman. In the early 1990s, Shneiderman’s research changed the way touch-screen keyboards were activated, with a click beginning when a finger lifts off, not when it taps down. That enables more accurate typing–and smaller keys.
5:46 Han zooms in and out of a model of Earth.
That idea was familiar to some web users even before Han’s demonstration. “We started a project in our lab in 1989 on zooming interfaces,” says Perlin. “You could precompute a bunch of stuff by the time you go there, so it’s quick to display.” This idea spurred on Keyhole, which was integrated into Google Maps in 2005.
7:30 Han draws a shape, then bends and shifts it.
This is software that originated in his NYU lab and truly was brand new at the time. “It’s a great example of the kind of research I really love,” he tells the audience. “I’m not the only one doing it.”
An experimental, design-centric plan successfully revives a fading brand. So why didn’t everyone try it?
Procter & Gamble gathered 10 key staffers from various departments and gave them 10 weeks to focus exclusively on rebooting its stale Herbal Essences hair-care brand. That was way faster than P&G usually moved, and the resulting relaunch, targeted at younger consumers, was a major hit. It was the kind of design-world thinking championed by Claudia Kotchka, who was P&G’s VP of design, innovation, and strategy from 2001 to 2008. She reflects on what the moment meant.
What’s the lasting lesson of the Herbal Essences project?
You can bring different disciplines together and get them to perform at a level never seen before. We got the whole person to the job. If you’re in finance, people look at you as, “Go sit in your box and do numbers.” This was different. This was, “Go out and talk to consumers. Ideate. Prototype.” Companies have a lot of talent that’s not fully utilized. This is how designers work.
You’re now a consultant. Do your clients follow this model?
Not really. You have no idea how hard it is to get 10 people together for 10 weeks. People I talk to understand the logic, but they say, “I can’t do it.” Generally they want to know, How do you go into a company and build a culture change?
What mattered most when changing the P&G culture?
What I’m most proud of is that I actually got design as a critical function. There’s a design leader on every business unit leadership team, alongside head of R&D, head of marketing, and so on. It’s unheard of elsewhere.
Can you persuade other companies to follow suit?
It is virtually impossible. They all look at me as if I’m crazy. But companies do want to embrace design now. I think there have been enough books out. It’s been in Harvard Business Review. They’ve seen it. They don’t all know what they’re asking for yet, but at least they’re asking.
COLOR OF THE YEAR*:
*According to expert color forecasters at Pantone.
Herman Miller’s Leaf Lamp lights up design blogs.
Microsoft’s Zune makes consumers swoon for the vastly superior iPod.
SHOE OF THE YEAR:
Toms: The first Toms were inspired by Argentine polo shoes. The company’s buy-one-give-one charity went on to donate 10 million pairs worldwide.
LIGHTBULB OF THE YEAR:
General Electric Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFL) go mass market, in partnership with Walmart.
THE YEAR IN SPACE:
DS4G Fuel-efficient ion rocket engine developed by Australian National University and European Space Agency
- 2004: Ambitions Rise in the East, Project Runway vs. The Industry
- 2005: Rethink Dinner, A Better Drug Bottle, Inside a Designers Mind
- 2006: PG&G Best-Kept Secret, Man with the Golden Touch
- 2007: Know your Type, The iPhone… Stinks?, The iTunes Effect, Can Design Change the World?
- 2008: All Politics is Visual, Nature as a Teacher, The Rise of Designer Founders
- 2009: Track and Fields, The Crowd Takes Over, Don Draper Hits the Mall
- 2010: Hands Off that Logo!, Innovation’s Perfect Storm, Close your Eyes, See Everything
- 2011: Why People Love an Infographic, A Long-Awaited Vision, Reviewed by All, When Design is Also Art
- 2012: London Plays for Keeps, Instagram, Pinterest, and the Next Big Thing
- 2013: Talent War, Young Guns, The Future of Transit?
[Illustration by Max-o-Matic | Illustration by Richard Perez | Khoi Vinh Image: Flickr user Fontshop | Photograph by Amber Gregory]