Recently I was clearing out a closet and found what was, a long time ago, my design tool box:
An A3 board, mechanical/architectural templates plus a handful of drawing instruments meant I could draw pretty much anything. From a pencil scribble, a marker rendering to formal drafting (with lousy printing because I never did that very well!) this little board could do it all. While today's tools are far more capable I think there are still some lessons here for digital design hardware and software.
The format fits:
It was robust, portable and large enough to allow human scale interaction. I sketch better on A3 than smaller sheets, but they are portable enough without folding. In a 2D pre-digital world it was a powerful set of generic tools I could use anywhere.
The digital state of the art?
My work machine - a HP 8710w mobile workstation - approaches A3 size, is portable (well luggable) and powerful enough to run any CAD/BIM tool. In many respects it's a digital version of that old board with the addition of incredibly powerful design tools and all the advantages computers have over paper.
What's missing is the human interface. You can't "sketch" on a laptop and while plug-in digitiser tablets are an option they are not really practical for mobile use.
We have another machine at work that gets closer to the ideal in many respects. The HP 2710p Convertible Tablet PC has pen input and, with Vista, remarkable handwriting recognition. In fact it's ability to read my scrawl sometimes exceeds my own! Folding over the screen and pulling out the pen turns a good notebook into a brilliant Tablet PC. You have a digital sketch pad not too different to that A3 Rotring, except it's heavier and also warms your lap!
The problem is it doesn't have the processor or graphics grunt to handle full on design applications. Its 12.1" screen is good quality (1280 x 800 pixel) but a bit small. I tend to run out of space when sketching or spend too much time zooming & panning. If it were a tablet I think the HP 8710w 17" (1920x1200) screen would be about right.
Enter, with a thud, the Lenovo W Series:
This is Lenovo's attempt to satisfy the designer, and provide a bit of tablet'ness, in a powerful mobile workstation.
With Duo Quad Core processors, 17" wide screen display (even one version with a slide-out secondary display) and up to NVIDIA Quadro FX 3700 1GB discrete graphics the performance matches a desktop. They also built in a small integrated WACOM tablet digitiser. That gets over the mouse/keyboard barrier but it introduces compromises a proper Tablet PC avoids. I've been watching Rob's video blogs Part 1 & Part 2) over at GottaBeMobile and it looks like quite a beast. Weighing in at about 5 kg it's more "luggable" than portable but still better than a desktop when taking work to a meeting. There are more tech details in the Lenovo announcement at GottaBeMobile
Without handling one it's hard to tell how usable it is but I think they have missed the point. For me the Tablet PC wins over a digitiser pad because the interaction happens at your finger, actually pen, tip. I find digitiser pads don't provide the essential hand/eye feedback due to their remote location, even after acclimatisation. It's interesting to see tablet user James Kendrick is finding the same.
Will "touch" be the Tablet PC breakthrough?
Tablets have a loyal following but never really took off. With the arrival of Windows 7 I wonder if touch will be the catalyst to more widespread adoption. To me a PC with touch is just a Tablet PC that doesn't need a stylus. Problem is touch doesn't work that well when you're reaching over a keyboard on a conventional laptop. Fold the screen over, like a convertible tablet, and you have a much more "touch friendly' form factor. Maybe all that finger painting at Kindergarten was just early practice for touch PCs!
Their will be other user interface innovations, like those seen at Autodesk Gallery below, where direct manipulation of 3D objects will make the mouse/keyboard seem archaic.
So what is My Perfect PC (for now)?
Based on technology that's available today, or nearly here, I'd like:
- Powerful processor, memory, disk spec for CAD, BIM, Engineering Modelling.
- High quality separate graphics
- Touch, tablet like pen and voice interface.
- Full size keyboard with number pad, touch pad and stick.
- Power for decent mobile use (i.e 8 hours real work)
- Not too compact - 17" screen minimum
- Maybe even Windows 7
Except they'll likely struggle with this requirement, unless lots of people buy them:
- Not too expensive...
That's what I want, does anyone else? Will anyone make it?
Note: This post started months ago in draft form. I've hit publish now as decided it will never really be finished so regard it as part 1 of a series. Expect future editions as my wish-list and the technology evolves.