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The Rise of the Touchscreen

Tom Butts, editor-in-chief

ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- Technology that enhances the way we interact with professional broadcast products has greatly evolved over the past decade and nowhere is that more evident than in the increasing presence— nearing ubiquity— of the touchscreen.

Touchscreens are nothing new to our business, but recent product introductions have illustrated how far the technology has come. Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in Grass Valley’s recent introduction of its Director Integrated Nonlinear Live Production Center (today’s name for “switchers”). The look of a switcher hasn’t changed all that much over time but the Director is one that stands out—a product that takes advantage of the power and simplicity behind software-based interfaces. With an iPad-like touchscreen control surface (along with traditional switcher buttons and fader bars), the unit is designed to occupy less space but provide many of the same powerful features in a traditional switcher.

Software platforms are increasingly oriented to the touchscreen, including the most popular platform, Microsoft, which optmized Windows 8 for such devices. But the discrepancies between how the software works for the latest devices and what works for legacy hardware can sometimes be glaring. Bill Hayes, director of engineering for Iowa Public Television, discovered this when he expounded on the increasing use of touchscreens in production switchers recently in “Digital Journal,” and talked about the confl ict between the user interface and the underlying technology. Referring to the new version of Windows, Bill said “anyone who has installed software in the default mode quickly recognizes that the favored user interface is a touchscreen on a tablet, not a keyboard and a mouse.” Bill added that there is, in some ways, a “mismatch” between the software and the traditional interface.

What’s driving the increasing use of touchscreens in our industry is also what is driving its popularity in consumer products—simplicity and flexibility. The ability to use software to assign multiple processes allows us to forego the more intensive training that was involved in the past and promotes customization—all within a smaller footprint. And more of us are replacing traditional hardware tools with consumer touchscreens like Android smartphones or iPads, equipped with apps that allow us to monitor, manage and move content on a daily basis.

Some manufacturers are looking beyond the touchscreen and towards hand gestures. Nobody is suggesting that we are anywhere near a “Minority Report”- type scenario, where directors use such gestures in thin air to direct a production; most of these incremental changes start in lower market products (Grass is marketing the Director to small and mid-market facilities), before moving to the professional arena where requirements are more demanding. For the time being, professional production will still require hardwarebased interfaces; however, the increasing use of the touchscreen as a control surface means we could see more revolutionary hardware designs at future NAB Shows.