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
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
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
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
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
How might an organization forecast ROI for such a nascent
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
Cost of multitouch devices and software: $15,000 each ($75,000
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.
David M. DeProspero is currently concluding
his PhD in information technology with a concentration in
human-computer interaction at Capella University; firstname.lastname@example.org