Concept: Desktop Touchscreen System

While there are hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of applications, we only have a handful of operating systems. Probably for the reason that even if you were to create one, it would be hard to get installed onto hardware once you did. And then the operating system is mostly useless until developers start making programs to run on top of it.

All that being said, with the launch of HP’s TouchSmart and TX2 computers, I’m occasionally asked what a purely touchscreen system would be like for a desktop. (It’s rumored that Jeff Han of Perceptive Pixel is currently working on one, and of course, the iPhone, Instinct, Dare, et al have touchscreen OSes for mobile.) With the publication of my book Designing Gestural Interfaces last week, I thought I would discuss what some desktop concepts could be like.

Let’s first look at what operating systems do. They let users:

  • store data
  • organize data
  • display data
  • move data between applications
  • connect to other devices or networks
  • launch applications
  • switch applications
  • change hardware settings


That’s pretty much the core functionality. It’s surprisingly little, but it does encompass a lot. How would this set of functionality work with a touchscreen? First some principles:

  • Nothing overly strenuous. People will be using it all day, so few or no reaches, held positions, or overly-repetitive gestures. This also means that systems like the TouchSmart probably won’t work well, as it requires constant reaching to manipulate.
  • Awareness of limitations of fingers. Touch targets have to be larger than they are for a cursor. Menus need to move from the top of the screen to the bottom to reduce screen coverage.
  • Take advantage of spatial layouts. We’re used to moving things around on our physical desktops with our hands, why not our digital desktops?
  • Man does not live by touch alone. Probably a keyboard and, yes, possibly a mouse or stylus might make sense as part of a desktop system. Use touch for what it is good at doing.


Here are some concepts built with these principles in mind:

Propped-Up Tablet
For touchscreens, keeping the screen as close as possible while still allowing for wrist support is important. Thus, this idea of a large screen that rests on the desktop at an angle. It’s as though your laptop had lost its keyboard, grown taller, and the processor had moved behind the screen.

Circling for Multiple-Select
While the touchscreen will work as we’ve come to expect, some additions such as circling multiple items with a finger to select them will be necessary.

File Piles
In addition to folders, piles of files that can be flipped through with flicks of the finger. Tap a file to open it.

Making the Invisible Physical
Some items that are invisible on current desktop systems might have to be made visible in order to be manipulated, such as items put onto the clipboard.

Fluid Borders
Users should be able to push piles and files off to one side, off the screen (effectively hiding it, or onto multiple monitors). Brushing multiple fingers across the screen moves it around to spaces that cannot be seen. The screen becomes a window into a bigger desktop.

Haptics Keyboard When You Need It
Since touchscreens aren’t naturally great for text entry, a keyboard that takes advantage of haptics (to stimulate key presses) could appear onscreen as necessary. Of course, for writing and longer text tasks, a full keyboard can be hooked up.

Of course, these are just concepts that would have to be prototyped and tested. But it might start us all thinking about what it would be like if our lap or desktop was touchscreen-based.

All images by Tom.