David DeProspero is an employee of the Rome City School District, in Rome, New York. Over the last decade of employment with the District, he has seen first-hand the computing difficulties faced by individuals with physical disabilities. David's ongoing research on emerging Natural User Interface technologies has focused on equalizing the computer interaction experience for all user demographics both in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors and leveling the playing field for students and workers with disabilities.

What is a multitouch interface?

A multitouch interface is a novel device that is similar to a touch screen display, with the exception that a multitouch interface can recognize more than just one or two simultaneous touch events. A multitouch interface generally takes a horizontal orientation, so the technology is often being categorized as a touch "surface." The technology is not new. The underlying method for accomplishing multitouch interaction, namely FTIR (Frustrated Total Internal Reflection), has been around since the 1960s. However, with the increasing power of computing technology and strong open-source hardware and software communities, multitouch technology became a trendy buzzword in the early part of the new millennium.

What are the benefits of multitouch technology over the traditional keyboard/mouse?

Since its initial development, a considerable amount of research has been conducted on the usability characteristics of the computer mouse. The computer mouse is wrought with problems and is not the universally accessible interface device that most people think it is. There are many individuals with disabilities who cannot make use of the computer mouse due to upper-body physical limitations, lack of fine motor skills, tremor, neurological conditions, and many more. For these individuals, interaction with a graphical user interface, such as Microsoft's Windows, is a difficult endeavor. Multitouch technology may be a possible solution to this problem.

Since multitouch technology is significantly different than standard touch-screen technology, it is not dependent on a human touch (carrying a capacitive charge) or algorithms, which estimate approximate finger touch size. Individuals with prosthetics, individuals with amputated limbs, and many other demographics of users likely would be able to interact with the multitouch device more successfully than any other interface device to date. Further, since the overall display size is much larger than a traditional LCD screen, individuals with fine motor skill deficiencies likely would be able to move around the touch surface, without the need for the precise motions required by a computer mouse.

Besides individuals with physical disabilities, multitouch technology is a great collaboration tool. Again, since the device can recognize multiple fingers and hands, multiple users - with the appropriate software - could interact with the device at the same time. Each user could have the capability of interacting with virtual objects or components in the interface simultaneously. Since the technology is scalable, the multitouch can be configured in both the horizontal orientation (coffee table configuration), as well as in the vertical orientation as an interactive wall. The technology functions equally well at several inches wide as well as several meters wide.

In what environment would multitouch technology be appropriate?

There has been some debate over the potential worth of multitouch technology, with the commentary centering around the argument that the technology is merely a passing fad. With the recent backing by Microsoft, Apple, and many others, it would seem that this technology has growth momentum. Due to the novelty of the technology, current implementations of multitouch are largely seen in museum installations, tradeshow displays, hotel lobby kiosks, and a limited quantity of additional venues. The specific nature of the current installations is mostly due to the large physical size of multitouch devices, and the expense of their custom construction and deployment. However, as the technology continues to advance from its current computer-vision configuration to a more solid-state LCD device, the applications for multitouch technology will likely increase.

One possible environment where multitouch could have great value is in the educational environment - schools, colleges, and training centers. The collaborative nature of the technology would certainly enhance the learning process by incorporating group interaction and discussion. Also, with the wide range of educational software being used in the modern education field, it stands to reason that multitouch technology would be a good for students with physical disabilities who cannot make use of a computer mouse. Currently, there is a widespread deficiency of accessible technology within the schools for students with physical disabilities who cannot utilize a computer mouse. These students are largely segregated from educational computing activities due to this deficiency.

Another environment where multitouch technology would be beneficial is in the corporate landscape. While children and students with physical disabilities might not be able to make use of a computer mouse, studies have shown that adults with disabilities have similar difficulties. Since most corporate work is done on a computer of some sort, this technology would help to improve accessibility and productivity of employees with disabilities. Further, since many companies are Equal Opportunity Employers, technologies must be explored to help enable employees with disabilities. Above and beyond the applications for users with disabilities, the collaborative powers of multitouch technology also would benefit organizations in brainstorming sessions, group presentations, tele-presence applications, conferences, and many other applications where multiple users would benefit from sharing the same computing environment.

Why would an organization explore the adoption of this nascent technology?

Revenue generation makes it worth exploring multitouch technology. This would be true in for-profit institutions as well as not-for-profits, such as schools. For example, a family is evaluating school districts to host their children. A parent may look for the inclusion of novel and accessible technologies as a criterion for helping to make a decision. If one district makes use of a technology such as multitouch and one does not, this parent may choose the technology-enabled district, thus providing that district additional revenues.

From an organizational perspective, a potential employee may seek an employer that actively makes use of cutting-edge technology. One organization may be better able to foster creativity within its employees through the use of multitouch technology, and this creativity may ultimately prove to be a financial boon for that organization. An organization that makes effective and creative use of its technology may be in a better strategic position than one that is ineffective in its technological utilization.

Public image is another factor in the determination to explore multitouch technology. The novelty of the interface device is one of the driving factors behind the current multitouch movement. By installing multitouch systems in an organization's public locations, or in locations where the public can fully utilize them, the organization may be labeled as cutting-edge in the use of this technology. The public perception of an organization is dependent on how the public views it, and the presence of cutting-edge technology goes a long way in advancing the high-tech persona of that organization.

How might an organization forecast ROI for such a nascent technology?

Return-on-investment forecasting is not a simple undertaking. This complexity is further exacerbated by the fact that multitouch technology is not yet commercially available, and pricing and production details are neither consistent, nor widely known.

Within the body of literature surrounding multitouch technology, ROI is a topic that is conspicuously absent. Much information regarding ROI and computing technology deals with training initiatives and how the training financially benefits the organization. Multitouch technology must be thought of as a commodity to help individuals become better at what they do.

Below is a very simple mathematical model to help estimate the ROI of a multitouch initiative for the purposes of aiding five physically challenged employees. To do this, some very basic financial information is needed. Please note that the following information is completely fictitious and is not reflective of actual pricing.

Cost of multitouch devices and software: $15,000 each ($75,000 total)

Cost of training each employee: $2,500 ($12,500 total)

Total expenditure: $87,500

Annual sales from non-disabled employee: $225,000

Annual sales from disabled employee: $150,000 (due to inability to fully utilize existing technology in a timely and efficient manner)

Difference in sales: $75,000 ($375,000 total)

Assuming that the only differentiating factor between employees is the employees' levels of physical ability, it can be deduced that one year after training, the employee with a disability has the potential to generate the same revenue as an able-bodied employee.

A 2008 Business Insurance article "Return on Investment Calculations for Wellness Programs Remain Elusive" indicates that a very simple ROI formula can be used to aid in these calculations. The anticipated increase in sales ($375,000) can easily be divided by the total investment ($87,500). Using this very simple method, a result of 4.285 can be realized, or an almost 430 percent payback potential in the following year after implementation.

So, while the initial investment may seem high at nearly $100,000, the potential payback is more than four-fold after the first year. The organization's commitment to seek out an accessible interface device for those who are unable to use the traditional computer mouse has equalized the sales potential of all employees and has paid substantial dividends.

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David M. DeProspero is currently concluding his PhD in information technology with a concentration in human-computer interaction at Capella University; ddeprospero@romecsd.org