Imagine, you’re five years in the future, trying desperately to get a handle on the new touch-screen gestures for CAD and it’s not all it’s cracked up to be… for designing products. Suddenly, it seems easier to strangle the people forcing multi-touch tech down your throat, along with the bloggers that keep going on about how cool it is.

Whoa there tiger, before you get out the piano wire and menacing look, let’s take a step back… together, have a drink and discuss what’s being done to make 3D design and multi-touch a time to look forward to.

There are people working on the concepts to make it happen. Here’s one of them and four features that are more important as the fruitfulness of multi-touch devices approacheth.

Interactive Table or Digital Whiteboard
Media Interaction Lab recently debuted the FLUX Project at the CHI conference in Boston. FLUX (Fully Liberating User eXperience) is probably the most functional device yet to shows the wide variety of interaction that would be possible in a multi-touch environment.

They did a lot of things right with respect to approaching the design of a touch device that we might want to use someday for real design tasks. The video below tells it all.

What we Need
So really, for touch and 3D design to be dead nuts serious we need:

  • Form factor – A different form factor that is more akin to the drafting tables of old
  • Multi-layer Displays – Screens with a top layer that doesn’t glare, doesn’t smudge
  • Multiple Input – Touch (hand manipulation) for that for which it is good – positioning things, moving things, pulling things apart, and the like and other devices (like pens) for fine input
  • Device Augmentation – Possibly other physical tools (like the artist palette) for special tasks

Form Factor

The attention being given to small screens, from mobile devices (iPhone, Palm Pre) to netbooks, distracts from a more important feature. Sure, when you are on the move and you want to look at a model, it’ll be nice to view it on your iPhone. But for real design, nothing beats screen real estate. (How many do you have on your desktop?) The only problem is that a vertically oriented screen with a keyboard and mouse between you and the screen (HP TouchSmart) is less than ideal for touch input. Oh my aching shoulders! The FLUX table, in its single-user mode, is designed much like the form factor of a drafting table. But wait! They actually happened to design the FLUX table so it has three orientations – horizontal, slanted drafting table, and vertical. For us as designers and engineers, the slanted position is the most compelling.

Multi-layer Displays

The surface itself is going to be a key feature. In one of the papers on the FLUX table, they talk about how they constructed the display out of several layers. The top layer is composed of HP Colorlucent Backlit Film. People who have actually used the device will tell you the top layer of the surface felt and looked great. It has a reflectivity and feel of something close to paper or vellum and it doesn’t give a glare or show smudges and fingerprints.

Multiple Input

The current focus on only touch (hand) input is another distraction from the possibilities we have. There’s a reason that humans have been using tools like brushes, pens, and pencils for hundreds of years – fine motor control over those tools, and precise input, right? Ideally, for 3D design, the right devices will use touch for moving, manipulating in space, and positioning objects, models, navigation and things, and additionally use special devices like pens for finer, more precise input. That, is exactly what you see in the FLUX table – the integration of both an Anoto digital pen and touch input.

Device Augmentation

Along with the touch and pen input, they augment the table with other physical devices. You see some of this in the video above, but also in this picture (taken at the CHI conference), where an “artist palette” contains color and line weight swatches. Because the pen has a camera in it, you can switch colors and line weights just by touching the pen on the palette. THIS is absolutely BRILLIANT.

I know. You’re bleeding with excitement. Those are, bare minimum, the four features we need to really, truly get gritty with 3D design in the Touch-screen age. Are developers looking at it? I imagine they’re aware of how this technology is crusing along. They would have to be really out of touch not to recognize the implications of how we could design products within these environments. Now, it’s time to imagine what’s past even this. Any ideas?

Editor’s Note: I’d like to really thank those who contributed a great deal to this article. Without discussion about this crazy technology, we wouldn’t have any innovation whatsoever and would be forced back, chained to drawing boards with the edict to keep doing it like we’ve always done. Keep it going.


Josh is founder and editor at, founder at Aimsift Inc., and co-founder of EvD Media. He is involved in engineering, design, visualization, the technology making it happen, and the content developed around it. He is a SolidWorks Certified Professional and excels at falling awkwardly.