Scratching the Surface

By now you’ve seen the news about Microsoft Surface, the new computer with a tabletop touch screen. Users of Surface can use their fingers to select, move, drag, and enlarge objects across the large screen, and Microsoft sees applications for its new product in restaurants, hotels, and, eventually, homes. (It’s better to see the demo on Microsoft’s site than to explain the product in words.)

But what about using Surface, or tools like it, in research and higher education? Researchers have been developing and dreaming of a tool like Surface, only much, much larger, to use in organizing and analyzing large sets of data. If your brain is a central processing unit, your eyes are the highest-bandwidth port into that processor. To be able to see all of the data you have collected — and to move it around intuitively, with your hands — might be a valuable way for many scholars in all sorts of fields to interact with the raw materials of research.

When researchers talk about these touch screens, they often mention the film Minority Report, in which Tom Cruise used his hand to move pictures of victims, perpetrators, and crime scenes around a large screen. Cruise’s character was trying to visualize connections between the clues, to solve murders that hadn’t yet happened. Your average researcher would probably work on something a bit more tedious, and without the car chases, intrigue, and eye transplants. But the techniques might be similar. Whether Surface provides a consumer-level step toward that kind of research is yet to be seen. —Scott Carlson

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