ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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SIEGEL: Today, an extended version of our All Tech Considered segment on one topic...
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SIEGEL: ...the age of touch and tablets. According to market researcher IHS iSuppli, global shipments of cellphones and tablets with touch screens have exceeded one billion in the past two years. This year, iPad sales alone nearly quadrupled. No big surprise there, just check out any place where people are waiting for a train or having a cup of coffee and ask them about the screen they're looking at and touching.
NATIA MILLER: I really do think that the touch is the best interface. Of course, a mouse and keyboard is a much more comfortable interface, but you can't put that in your pocket.
TAVAR SMITH: I had converted from a Blackberry, but once you get the familiarity, it's really seamless.
TOM RALPH: The problem with these phones, though, is you can make an immense number of typos.
RYAN BOYD: I mean, it just seems sort of like a novelty.
AMY BREESMAN: I would almost say it's, like, a negative effect that it's had on my life. It's just kind of this rabbit hole that you're always going down.
BILL FLETCHER, JR.: Am I addicted to it? Well, many people would say that I'm addicted to it.
SIEGEL: Natia Miller(ph), Tavar Smith(ph), Tom Ralph(ph), Ryan Boyd(ph), Amy Breesman(ph), and Bill Fletcher, Jr.(ph). The only thing they have in common is they're all touch users and we met them all in downtown Washington, D.C. Just few decades ago, what they were doing was the stuff of science fiction. Here's NPR's Laura Sydell.
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LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Tablet computers might already be familiar to fans of "2001: A Space Odyssey." Here's a description from the novel by Arthur C. Clarke. Quote, "when he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his (unintelligible) Newspad into the ship's information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one, he would conjure up the world's major electronic papers," unquote.
Those Newspads show up in the movie version, too, as two crew members eat breakfast, they watch a news interview about the omniscient computer HAL on their Newspads.
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SYDELL: That Newscast is on a thing that looks so much like an iPad that Samsung says it proves Apple doesn't have a patent. In court documents, they have a link to that clip on YouTube as proof that their Galaxy Tab isn't a rip-off of the iPad. In fact, tablet computers have appeared in other well known science fiction.
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SYDELL: A version of a tablet computer first made an appearance on NBC in 1966.
MICHAEL OKUDA: In the original "Star Trek," they had this little widget called an electronic clipboard. It was just a clipboard that presumably talked to the ship. It had a blinking light in it, so it had to be technical.
SYDELL: That's Michael Okuda. He was the lead graphic designer for "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and all the "Star Trek" shows after that. He says when he came on board the team for "The Next Generation" in 1989, he and the prop designer had to update the clipboard.
OKUDA: And Rick Sternbach designed what we called the PADD, the Personal Access Display Device, in which we stripped that down to a minimal size and came up with something that's remarkably like a tablet computer.
SYDELL: Okuda says the tablets could be used to read books, look at graphic reports, find information. They even realized that a handheld computer could run things.
OKUDA: We thought about it and said, you know, given the technology, these really are computer terminals and from there it's a very logical thing of, you know, you could actually fly the ship with one of these things. And once we realized that, we started telling the writers, hey, you know, you can do more stuff with these things.
SYDELL: And so the tablet could be used to send messages to the ship and communicate and, well, they could do a lot of things that an iPad can do. Kevin Fox, a usability expert, says a tablet shaped device was inevitable because it's easy to hold.
KEVIN FOX: We have hands with opposable thumbs. We like picking things up.
SYDELL: And that's why Fox thinks that tablet computers had to happen and why it makes sense that science fiction writers would have thought of them first.
FOX: I think science fiction is the brainstorming part of science. If you look at Jules Verne, for example, he's talking about going to the moon, he's talking about submarines, that sort of thing. It's a lot easier to do that than it is to hold your tongue out until you've actually invented a thing, until you've actually made a rocket that can go to the moon.
SYDELL: For his part, "Star Trek" designer Michael Okuda says he'd be delighted if any of the designs he did for "Star Trek" really did help inspire designers in the real world. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
SIEGEL: Now, it's not as though the tablet, with its multi-touch screen, was conceived on "Star Trek" and then born full-grown sometime around 2007. One of the innovators of multi-touch is Bill Buxton, who's now with Microsoft. He says when an invention makes an apparently sudden breakthrough, it's typically been sneaking up on us, gestating for 20 years. He calls it the long nose theory. Buxton's own contribution came in the mid-1980s.
He was in Toronto composing electronic music and trying to solve problem.
BILL BUXTON: I wasn't trying to make a computer interface. I was just trying to make a drum. Turns out, if you want to make a hand drum that you want to be able to tap it and at the same time have the palm of your hand pushing down and pulling across the virtual skin, so to speak, to change the tone and that's really all we were trying to do.
SIEGEL: Was there a moment as you were trying to make a better digital drum, a great Eureka moment when you said, ah-ha, that's how we do it?
BUXTON: Yes. Not necessarily did I envision what was going to happen today, that it would be in everybody's pocket and their Smartphone, absolutely not. Did we realize that things were gonna be different, that you could do things that we never imagined after the fact, once we had it to play with, absolutely.
SIEGEL: Of course, I'm sure there is some relatively young listeners who may feel a great debt of gratitude to you for it, but have taken this for granted. At the time, it's astonishing that you could create as convincing a digital instrument as that.
BUXTON: There's a history in that, in that in many cases, people who'd come from outside the normal discipline, like I was trained in music, not in technology, where nobody told us it was hard. It seemed just a pretty obvious thing to do at the time. But what wasn't clear is that we had different insights and just the right people around to make it happen. And I love that part of things where when people who are just completely open (unintelligible) imagination try to do creative things have no business doing that kind of technological innovation, actually have insights that turn up many years after the fact have had huge impact.
And I like it in that sense that it's just your imagination that's driving it and you're not trying to be so deliberate of trying to - I'm going to do something very important. That usually just makes you get uptight, constrained and it's far better just to find something you love doing, chase it down and the rest will just fall out.
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SIEGEL: And now you can play the drums on any Smartphone. The rest of that story that Bill Buxton was an early part of is still around us. It's changing how we read, play and learn. Apple says more than 2,300 school districts have iPad programs now. And NPR's Larry Abramson says schools are just starting to discover their potential.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington County, Virginia, is super friendly to technology.
BILL DONOVAN: So let me have the iPod group go get the iPods and you guys can head to the back over there. The iPad group, you can go get the iPads and get...
ABRAMSON: For a math exercise, teacher Bill Donovan divides his fourth graders up according to the gadget they'll be using. The school has a growing cache of iPads, about 100 for 600 students. They're used for everything - as simple tablets for writing and math, as a canvas for elaborate storybooks. But in one particular class, the iPad has been a game changer.
LESLEY MCKEEVER: Okay, Amanda, give me crayon. Good job.
ABRAMSON: Special ed assistant Lesley McKeever is working with a very affectionate boy named Roberto. He has autism and cannot speak, but he's learned how to touch the picture of a crayon or scissors on the iPad screen.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE SPEAKER: Scissor.
MCKEEVER: Good job. Thank you.
SIEGEL: And that earns Roberto a snack. Touch technology has been so helpful in this special ed classroom for students with autism, Arlington County provides each student with an iPad. (Unintelligible) is drawn to the iPad version of "The Cat In The Hat Comes Back" because he can touch the words and hear how they sound.
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ABRAMSON: Special ed teacher Katie Lernahan(ph) says touch technology gives these students a rare moment of independence.
KATIE LERNAHAN: Because a lot of times they have to have things so structured, the teacher has to...
ABRAMSON: Special Ed teacher Katie Lernahan(ph) says touch technology gives these students a rare moment of independence.
KATIE LERNAHAN: Because a lot of times they have to have things so structured, the teacher has to basically be in control of everything. Whereas, here, they can be put on a program and they can kind of pace themselves through it.
ABRAMSON: Down the road at Washington Lee High School, touch is less of a draw but cool apps have potential.
MATT PRZYDZIAL: OK, once you're finished, then can go back to my website and then go face down on the iPad.
ABRAMSON: In this AP Calculus class, teacher Matt Przydzial is letting students play with a graphing app on their iPads. Przydzial says he used to project things like this up on a screen, but it isn't the same.
PRZYDZIAL: In their hands, they can play around. And they can figure out, OK, well, if this is the derivative, here's what's going on with the function. It creates that element of discovery that's not dictated by me.
ABRAMSON: Teachers also say you have to invest some time in this technology to get something out of it. Much of the iPad's usefulness will depend on what teachers and publishers decide what to do with it.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
SIEGEL: From the classroom to the hospital. Jenny Gold, of our partner Kaiser Health News, reports that the transition to tablet technology is a bumpy road for the U.S. health care industry. Here's her story.
JENNY GOLD, BYLINE: Jose Reyna arrived at the U.C. San Diego Medical Center about a week ago to get his brand new kidney. The 24-year-old has been on dialysis for nearly three years.
Kate Franco, a physicians assistant on the transplant team, stands over his bed scrolling through his medical records on her iPad 2.
KATE FRANCO: The good thing is that your kidney transplant is really starting to pick up.
GOLD: She pulls up a graph of data points on her iPad had, charting the functioning of his new kidney.
FRANCO: We can see where you came in and that's right after surgery. And now, it's been slowly trending up. And that's just because the kidney is taking its time to wake up.
GOLD: And then his chest x-ray from a few days ago.
FRANCO: See how it's a little bit of white in these corners?
JOSE REYNA: Mm-hmm.
FRANCO: That's fluid. This is your diaphragm and it's very patchy and white down there.
GOLD: Reyna is a tech guy with a Smartphone sitting out on his table. And he's very impressed.
REYNA: I was looking at my progress. Instead of a mental, it's more of a visualization. After a while, you get to see where you're going. It's really like a step towards the future.
GOLD: But most hospitals haven't been quick to adopt tablet computers. U.C. San Diego is ahead of the curve, but still, less than 10 percent of the doctors there use them.
DR. JONATHAN MACK: We're really lagging behind in the U.S. in terms of deployment of electronic medical records on mobile devices such as iPads.
GOLD: That's Jonathan Mack of the West Wireless Health Institute, a nonprofit focused on lowering the cost of health care through new technology. He says most of the electronic health records hospitals are spending millions of dollars setting up aren't yet compatible with tablets.
MACK: In order to go back around and deploy these on iPads with full functionality, it requires that they cough up a lot more money. And right now, when you look at a health system that has bought into a system, they're not ready to turn the boat around just right now in order to do mobile device.
GOLD: And because they are built on a Windows platform they can be clunky on an Apple product, like iPad. Spotty wireless service in the hospital means doctors are constantly getting logged off, they don't fit in the standard white coat pocket and there are security concerns about patient records.
Kate Franco says she also worries about the problem of distracted doctors.
FRANCO: It's hard when you have an iPad in your hands, sometimes there are moments when you want to check your email, and possibly update your Facebook. And I think it does take willpower to not be distracted.
GOLD: It's still unclear whether tablets actually make healthcare more efficient. Even pioneers like Franco are hedging their bets. In addition to her iPad and two iPhones, she still carries a good old-fashioned pager - just in case.
For NPR News, I'm Jenny Gold.
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SIEGEL: And in this part of the program, the astonishing age of touch and tablets and where it's leading us.
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SIEGEL: The future of touch screens isn't all that far off. In this case, it's in Reston, Virginia, a high-tech hotspot near Washington, D.C. There's a Microsoft facility in Reston where they demonstrate Microsoft Surface.
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SIEGEL: Surface is a tabletop Samsung monitor that is a multi-touch computer. The screensaver is a pool of water. I wave my hands on it or my fingers through it and the water ripples in response to my touch. When my hands approach the surface the menu turns to face me. When the Microsoft engineer across the tabletop moves his hands over it, it turns to face him. It sees our hands approaching.
Microsoft Surface is researcher Bill Buxton's baby.
BUXTON: The real thing about it is that's unique can be best described by analogy to two paper cups with a piece of string where you make a little walkie-talkie. Because you only have one cup in each hand, each person. So, if you and I were talking now with paper cups rather than regular microphones and so on, you'd be using the same cup for the microphone as for the speaker. And that says that an acoustic transducer, which is the $5 word for microphone and loudspeaker, can be bidirectional.
And so, somewhere around 1992, for me anyhow, that was the first time I asked the question: If an acoustic transducer can be bidirectional, why can't an optical? You say, well, what's that? Well, an optical transducer is a display and the camera. And why can't they both be bidirectional, because one is dealing with light, the other is with sound but otherwise, you know, the same basic relationship.
And it turned out, when I asked an engineer who was way smarter than me, could that be done, the answer was yes. And in essence, Surface is the first device that really has taken that approach. So not only is it a display that can present graphical information to you, each pixel can be thought of as like a camera element in a digital camera or a scanner and it can actually see.
Now, there's no lens, so it has to be a contact print primarily or it gets out of focus really quickly. But if you pulled a piece of paper with text on it or a bar code on the Surface and lay it down, unlike any other touch screen in the world, it can actually read it. And that opens up a whole new realm of interaction that is something that some of us have been working on for over a decade and dreamed about maybe 20 years ago. And bingo, it's starting to be manufactured.
SIEGEL: That new kind of interaction that Bill Buxton has developed with Surface intrigues Mike McSherry, too. McSherry was a co-founder of Swype. That's a technology that lets you write by sliding your finger around a touch screen keyboard, instead of tapping on it. It's kind of a virtual cursive writing.
What does Mike McSherry see coming in the future?
MIKE MCSHERRY: I think you're going to be able to do things with your head or your eyes, even potentially that, especially when maybe you're interacting with your laptop right in front of you and it's got a little camera that looks back at you, right now, that's only used for video chat. And I think that's going to become more of an interpretive camera that identifies gestures while interacting with your common laptop.
I think you're going to have personal profile models that follow you around. Your language is different than someone else's language and you're going to build that profile with you. And if you pick up a new device, you want to take that learned knowledge and behavior with you. You don't want to have to train it up from scratch.
SIEGEL: Which means my devices are part of me, ultimately - they might not work as well for you. Yours knows you. Mine knows me.
MCSHERRY: I believe that's going to be true. I think it's all going to be connected to the Cloud and there's going to need to be a means of controlling that.
SIEGEL: Explain the connection there though. What is it that links it to the Cloud?
MCSHERRY: Standalone devices are essentially going away in a sense. I mean, the phones all connected; tablets, you either have the Wi-Fi or cellular connection in there; and you're also going to store settings up in the Cloud, where the more I know about how you interact with something the better I'm going to be able to predict future behavior of that.
SIEGEL: But what that means is that there is an implicit relationship: the more compact, the smaller, the more affordable, the cooler the device that I have, the bigger, the more detailed, potentially the more intrusive store of data there is about all of us up in the Cloud.
MCSHERRY: Yeah, I think that's one of the inherent challenges for new technology models. And that's the trade-off decision you make with technology is, if I want better interaction and reactions with my relationship with these devices, therefore it has to know more information about me.
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SIEGEL: Sherry Turkel says the touch screen tablet or Smartphone is so much a part of us, it's worrying. Professor Turkel is an MIT sociologist who studies the relationship between people and the devices they use. She says these new devices are more than just the latest incremental phase of a sequence of high-tech distractions. They feel like extensions of our being.
PROFESSOR SHERRY TURKEL: If the device is us, it means that it's on us all the time. And it makes it less shocking to text when we're in class. I studied people who text during funerals. And they do that not only because we've developed a kind of need to do so in our psyches, that we feel anxious when we're not in contact. But we feel a kind of psychic permission because these devices really do feel like intimate machines.
SIEGEL: You think that the person who, at the funeral, might indeed text someone on a Smartphone probably would not whip out a laptop and open it up in the pew or standing around the gravesite.
TURKEL: Absolutely, because the fact that you just have to touch your fingers across to touch your fingers across a surface, there's a tremendous economy of gesture. And, you know, people tell me they are perfecting the technique of keeping eye contact while they text. And we have become vulnerable to constructing a kind of world of I.
You know, that's why think it's so brilliant that they call it the iPhone and the iPad.
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TURKEL: It helps to construct a world of I.
SIEGEL: I'm trying to think of something which shows how much these small touch screen devices have a different physical relationship to us from...
TURKEL: I think it's a fantasy of being a child and just being able to gesture. You know, the wonderful Tom Cruise movie, "Minority Report," that came out before the iPhone, where he just waved his arms and the screen moved and the screen changed. And he used his body to control the screen. And that fantasy of using your body to control the virtual is a child's fantasy of their body being connected to the world. So these phones are the ultimate intimate machine because they reconnect us with a deep childhood experience of being at one with the world.
SIEGEL: Sherry Turkel protests that she is no Luddite. But she says the student who enters an iWorld during a seminar, the person who mentally escapes a conversation via Smartphone, may be losing something worthwhile in those iMoments. They may be losing touch with the real world, the shared world around them.
There is a timeline that shows how innovators, like Bill Buxton and the late Steve Jobs, brought us touch and tablets. It's at NPR.org.
And this week, we'll be hearing from some innovators who grew up in the age of touch and tablets.