Will you soon be fingering your seven-incher?

Tablets set for shrinkage

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Something for the Weekend, Sir? The mill that grinds out iPad Mini launch rumours was hit by a hurricane this week, its normally creaking sails thrashing like helicopter blades.

I’d love to say that I’m bored by the whole thing but unfortunately it’s going to affect everyone at work. You spend six months preparing for the Kindle Fire UK launch – a “game-changer” I’m told – only for Apple to throw us into confusion. Actually, not confusion but annoyance. Unlike Amazon, Apple gives you bugger-all information ahead of the launch of products it expects you to develop apps for.

One argument doing the rounds at the moment is that the Kindle Fire and iPad Mini will ease consumers into a long-term 7in groove, leaving big, 10in tablets the exclusive province of business - oh yes - and the ostentatious.

As El Reg readers will be well aware, a seven-incher only needs one hand to hold comfortably and it can be whipped out in public without attracting unwarranted attention.

Apple iPad Mini?

So much for Steve Jobs’ concept of the original iPad’s “sweet spot” in terms of size and aspect ratio: the very existence of an iPad Mini is Apple’s admission that it was in danger of being left behind by pocket-size tablets – a potentially much more popular “sour spot”.

That said, there’s a belief among the faithful who worship at the Church of Jobs that the iPad Mini could only be launched if there was a full-size iPad 4 to launch alongside it. It’s too early, they say, for Apple to be ditching the saint’s decrees pertaining to his final pet project.

Assuming 7in tablets become the most popular type a year from now, I wonder what developers will do with all those yet-to-be-implemented big-screen gestures? As I believe I have mentioned in the past, an iPhone supports up to five simultaneous touches but the iPad supports eleven.

Think about it. Eleven.

Will an iPad Mini support eleven touches? Will it need eleven? In fact, does any tablet or smartphone need eleven – or even five? I can certainly conceive how a two- or three-player game might make use of lots of fingers, but I can also predict how slow such a game would run.

A recent paper from researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and Indiana University in Bloomington proposes using no more than two touches to manipulate objects on a flat-screen handheld device in four dimensions. Yes, that’s 4D manipulation on a flat touchscreen using two fingers on one hand. Forget about waving electronic gloves around like the demented lovechild of Michael Jackson and Stelarc.

Stelarc's third hand

Source: Stelarc.org

In maths, multiple dimensions beyond the first three are not abstract but working tools. Try to think of a 4D model as an eight-sided cube: as with a six-sided cube, just because you can’t see all the sides at once doesn’t mean they can’t exist. While a typical 3D model is imaged onto a 2D screen in a 3 x 2 projection matrix, a 4D model exists in a 4 x 3 orthogonal projection matrix. You can then define 4D rotation according to six independent parameters that correspond to rotation on wx, wy, wz, yz, zx and xy axes.

Got it? Good.

Look, if you own an iOS device, try it for yourself by downloading the 4Dice demonstration app. It looks like this:


If you were more discerning about your choice of tablet or phone, you can see a brief video here (sorry about the music):

These researchers propose one or two touches would be enough to push, pull, pinch, spin, select and launch, reserving three touches simply for dragging things around within the app space. This leaves plenty of room for OS-wide gestures based on screen area without reaching four simultaneous touches, let alone using two hands and getting your willy out.

If nothing else, it’s food for thought as the demand rises for bigger phones and smaller tablets. Certainly, the 7in space is not as restrictive as I imagined. I no longer feel the hardware has to be improved, only that software interface designers could be smarter. ®

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. Keep a copy of this article and have a laugh at my expense if 7in tablets vanish from the market within two years. In the future, we’ll be wearing clothes made of paper and, as Gary Numan reckoned, go to work by proxy.

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