1 July 2010

"Multitouch" technology has generated a large amount of buzz in the past several months. Some of the buzz is about mobile/handheld devices, and some has come from broadcast media's adoption of touch devices for their programs (such as CNN's "Magic Wall," NBC's Saturday Night Live, and ESPN). This has resulted in the term "multitouch" being used to describe a broad range of interaction types, interfaces, and devices. Most of the uses for touch interfaces that I've seen have involved a single user interface allowing only one or two touch points at a time through tapping the screen or through gestures. However, the true capabilities of a "multitouch" interface can accommodate multiple users interacting through any number of taps or gestures on the screen at the same time.

Multiuser Multitouch

For the purpose of this article I do not refer to "multitouch" to describe a smartphone or handheld device that can recognize only one or two points of touch simultaneously, such as a Motorola DROID; I refer to larger devices like the Microsoft Surface product that can accommodate multiple users and recognize points of touch from several users simultaneously (at least three simultaneous points of touch).

The research conducted as part of my graduate studies in the Department of Computer Graphics Technology at Purdue University ( has been a qualitative examination of multiuser collaboration with multitouch devices. The study explored the experience of users performing a common task in a shared environment (in this case the shared environment is the single display screen of the multitouch device). For more details about this research study visit

Digitally Replicating a Six Sigma Brainstorming Exercise

For my research, I designed and built my own multitouch table (which is currently pending a U.S. Patent) that could showcase the interface I developed with the Adobe Flash Platform.

For the hardware, I used an open-source software package called Community Core Vision (CCV), created by the NUI Group, to serve as a liaison between the hardware components and the Adobe Flash Player. I developed an Adobe AIR application to recreate a brainstorming exercise used within Six Sigma, known as both "Affinity Diagrams" and "KJ Analysis." Typically in Affinity Diagram exercises, participants anonymously record and submit individual ideas or concepts on separate sticky notes. Then the participants sort through the sticky notes, grouping and categorizing them by moving them physically. Through this process, unforeseen relationships between the ideas can emerge. Since this activity requires participants to interact in a shared work environment in the physical world, I chose to replicate it in a multitouch environment to explore the implications for a multiuser interface.

Exploring the Multiuser Interface

A moderator with Six Sigma Green-Belt certification and experience working with both corporations and universities served as a facilitator for the exercises performed during user testing. I selected Adobe AIR as the client since the application could run natively on a laptop computer connected to the multitouch table, and chose the Adobe Flash Platform to capture the experience of multiple users simultaneously interacting with multitouch interface and hardware. In the AIR application, users were able to move virtual sticky notes on the multitouch table, and perform the same grouping and categorizing exercises that people do with physical sticky notes in an Affinity Diagram exercise.

While both the hardware and software of the multitouch device created a few challenges for the participants on various levels, including occasional software failures, they were able to complete the exercises. That benefited not only this study, aimed at collecting qualitative data from the participants, but also the participants themselves, who were able to take the results of the Affinity Diagram exercises back to their respective organizations on the Purdue campus.

Affirming Research Assumptions

My goal was to determine whether a multitouch interface and device can be a practical shared environment for a team of individuals to complete a common task. The participants indicated that for completing an Affinity Diagram exercise, the multitouch device proved to be a useful tool and believe that it improved collaboration. The moderator for the Affinity Diagram exercise was surprised at the speed with which the participants in both rounds completed the tasks, despite a learning curve for them to become familiar with the multitouch device. She remarked that she has "not done one on paper that quickly." Furthermore, participants in the study expressed appreciation for the usefulness the multitouch device provided. It allowed them to see all the data in front of them at once, and to see most of the actions of their fellow participants.