iPad: the lowest common denominator

After watching Apple vs Predator, a short YouTube video, I had a blinding flash of the somewhat obvious and this is it: no other interface but the iPhone/iPad interface can seamlessly transfer to a virtual surface and gestures. Let’s expand on this.

If you’ve seen “Minority Report”, the movie, you must remember the interface Tom Cruise uses to access files. He pulls on gloves, then works the displays as if he touches a virtual surface in space. There are a number of projects doing gloves like this, such as the AcceleGlove by AnthroTronix.

It’s obvious, to me at least, that you can’t usefully move just any graphical interface to a virtual surface like in “Minority Report”. There are UI elements that work and others that don’t work. Obviously, you can’t use a mouse, there’s nowhere to let it rest, there’s just air. You can’t use a pen. The only thing you can use is your fingers. In other words, it’s a multi-touch interface, albeit virtually and in the middle of the air.

Could you imagine if you developed a useful virtual surface like this and you wanted to use the same user interface on a hard, real surface device. How would that look? Surprise, surprise, it would look exactly like the iPad. Not like Windows for Tablets, not like any other smartphone UI I’ve ever seen, but exactly like the iPhone and iPad UI.

I don’t think this is accidental. I think this is the fundamental reason that the iPhone and iPad have never had, and never will have, a pen or other pointing device. As long as they are entirely useable using only one or more fingers, the UI translates seamlessly to a virtual surface in the air.

There are signs one can do using a glove and a virtual surface that aren’t useable on a real surface with multi-touch. Example: making the “ok” sign using your thumb and index finger could work with a glove, but not with an iPad. On the other hand, it seems such signs are rarely used even in science fiction movies, and I think there’s a fundamental reason why not, simply because they are less suitable for an intuitive command interface. This leads to the rule that one should probably not introduce any visual signs in virtual surfaces that cannot be translated to gestures using a hardware device surface.

For medicine, all this is great news. This means that if you develop a medical records interface, or the interface to any other medical system, on an iPad, it will automatically be just right for a virtual interface, such as those we will need in operating theatres and bedside.

That makes the iPad user interface the lowest common denominator. If you develop for this UI, your medical app is future proof. MS Windows based medical apps, on the other hand, are living on borrowed time.