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Upgrading the Laptop's Touch Pad

A company says sophisticated gestures will reduce dependence on keyboards.

New software promises to let laptop users accomplish complicated tasks without lifting their fingers from the touch pad. The software, called Scrybe, is made by Synaptics, a Santa Clara, CA, company that already provides touch pads for 70 percent of notebooks on the market and 90 percent of their smaller netbook cousins. The software is currently available to a limited number of beta users.

Command control: The company that makes most laptop touch pads has developed software that lets users accomplish complicated tasks with the touch pad alone, as shown above.

With Scrybe, users can perform tasks, such as performing a search on Wikipedia, by tracing one of a number of predetermined shapes on a touch pad. They can also create custom gestures for specific custom tasks.

Ted Theocheung, head of the Scrybe program and Synaptics’s PC and digital home business unit, says the software is built around the idea of “gestural workflows,” which accomplish fairly complex tasks, such as conducting online research, shopping, or using multimedia, with the touch pad alone. Theocheung says that gestures can eliminate the need to type and shorten the number of steps needed to complete a task. Some laptops already feature simpler multifinger gestural controls, such as two-finger scrolling.

A user initiates Scrybe by tapping three fingers against the touch pad. This activates a mode in which the user can draw commands with a single finger that set off strings of actions. For example, a “W” opens Wikipedia and searches for a phrase the user highlighted previously. When the user is ready to go back to using a single finger, another three-fingered tap exits Scrybe’s command mode.

“I think there’s definitely value in being able to maintain focus on the track pad,” says Gabriel White, interaction design director at Punchcut, a user-interaction design firm based in San Francisco. White notes that the Synaptics software includes multitouch gestures, but suggests that many aspects of Scrybe’s gestural workflows are similar to keyboard shortcuts–useful and appealing to an advanced user, but likely to overwhelm a more casual user.

More complex gestural interactions are possible because of the underlying technology of touch pads, says Theocheung. Newer touch pads use “image sensors” that gather “pixels” of touch data from the pad and use that to build up an image of how the user is in contact with the device. “Some of the Scrybe technology has been in our labs a long time, but we needed these new sensors to make it a reality,” Theocheung says.

Those who own older devices can use a simpler version of Scrybe that lacks multitouch but still supports command symbols drawn with a single finger. Synaptics will soon include Scrybe in the software packages it delivers to manufacturers, which then sell the software along with new laptops.

However, White says the success of gestural interfaces may depend on developing a vocabulary that can be transferred from one product to another. “If you give someone a touchscreen phone, they immediately start doing the gestures they have learned from However, White says the success of gestural interfaces may depend on developing a vocabulary that can be transferred from one product to another. “If you give someone a touchscreen phone, they immediately start doing the gestures they have learned from iPhone,” he says.

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