How gesture controls could replace 3D Touch and bring multi-touch to the Mac [Opinion]

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Hovering your finger over an icon could bring up more options
Hovering your finger over an icon could bring up more options
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Next week at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, LG looks set to unveil a revolutionary new smartphone with gesture controls. In a brief teaser video, the South Korean tech giant boldly promises the end of multi-touch — the way we’ve all been interacting with smartphones ever since the iPhone launched in 2007.

A gesture sensor could pick up hand movements in front of the device, rather than requiring physical interaction with the screen itself. So, for example, you could point at a button from a distance, rather than actually needing to tap the glass screen to select it.

In reality, I doubt that gestures will replace multi-touch anytime soon. However, I do think Apple could make intelligent use of this new tech. It could replace 3D Touch (which Apple looks set to scrap), and it could serve as a clever way to finally bring multi-touch to the Mac.

Multi-touch is awesome, but it’s not perfect … yet

In many ways, the multi-touch user interface proves far superior to the point-and-click method still sported by Macs. When I’m browsing the web, I love being able to just reach out and tap a link rather than moving a pointer to it. But multi-touch does suffer from one major drawback: a lack of hovering.

The web was designed with point-and-click in mind. When you hover over things with a mouse cursor, they often change in some way, revealing more information. But with multi-touch, there is no pointer — and therefore no way to hover.

This makes some web experiences cumbersome when using an iOS device. On sites with clickable images that highlight when you hover, you often must tap the image twice to visit the link. The first tap shows the hover state, and the second tap activates the link.

What if your iPhone screen could detect your finger before you tap the screen?

Today’s multi-touch devices may not support hovering, but that does not mean your finger doesn’t hover before you tap. Of course it does. I find my finger often lingers over an icon as I’m deciding whether to tap it or not.

Imagine if Apple introduced gesture controls to the new iPhone 11, like LG is teasing. It could pick up on the position of your finger when it is above the screen, before you even tap.

In other words, it would finally enable Safari on iOS to support hovering. But it could do a lot more than that.

Why scrap 3D Touch when you could make it better?

Recent rumors indicate that Apple plans to scrap 3D Touch, the tech in some iPhones that senses “how deeply users press the display.”

The reasons? First, there’s the high cost of components that enable the technology. Second, people just don’t use 3D Touch that much.

But trying to save some pennies — and admitting a mistake — just does not sound like Apple. A more Cupertino-style move would be to take a closer look at why 3D Touch failed to catch on — and then find a way to fix it.

This is where I think gesture controls could provide a solution. The problem with 3D Touch is that it is not discoverable. Sure, it offers lots of handy options, like context menus when you force-tap on an app icon. But 3D Touch offers no visual clue to let you know those options exist. So usually, they go undiscovered.

But if Apple replaced 3D Touch with hover gestures, the extra options could pop up automatically. You would no longer need to guess. The options would be right there, just before you tapped.

Gesture controls: Missing ingredient for a multi-touch Mac

The synergy between gesture controls and multi-touch does not stop there. I think gestures could provide the missing ingredient that finally enables Cupertino to bring multi-touch to the Mac — the right way.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of using Windows 10, or those seat-back displays on airplanes, or the self-service checkout at CVS, you’ll know the bad way to add multi-touch to a desktop OS.

Rather than supporting multi-touch natively, these devices add it as a bolt-on to a legacy point-and-click interface. When you tap on the screen, these interfaces just move the pointer to the position you tapped and trigger a click. This feels sluggish and clunky, and you can even see the arrow-shaped pointer appear under your finger when you tap. Scrolling with this type of solution is a jerk-tastic nightmare.

Then there’s the problem with controls. On a point-and-click user interface, controls can be small and fiddly, because the pointer allows for very precise interactions. But fingers are stubby, and require much larger tap areas. Some controls on a Mac are just too small to tap with your finger.

For all these reasons, retro-fitting multi-touch onto point-and-click can never replicate the magical experience of using iOS. It’s no wonder that Apple has so far been resistant to introducing multi-touch to the Mac.

Give your Mac the finger

What is required is a method for the user interface to automatically and seamlessly switch from point-and-click mode to multi-touch mode. And the obvious way to do this is to detect the gesture of raising your finger to the screen.

In the same way that hovering over the iPhone screen could reveal the options previously hidden under a force-tap, bringing your finger toward your MacBook’s screen could trigger controls to adapt to the size of your finger.

I produced the video mockups above in Photoshop to illustrate what I mean. The traffic light controls on a Mac, for example, are far too small to tap with a finger. However, the hover gestures could make them automatically zoom out to finger size.

When a hover is detected, multi-touch mode is activated, the pointer would be disabled, and all the UI controls would adapt to finger-friendly equivalents. Moving your finger away from the screen, or interacting with the trackpad, would switch the Mac back into standard point-and-click mode.

The era of smartphone innovation is not yet over

This is all speculation of course. We don’t know for sure what LG will announce. And we don’t know if Apple could license that tech or develop its own alternative. But what I find interesting about this kind of speculation is that it highlights just how much room there still is for innovation in this area.

Most smartphones these days look very similar, offering the same features and form factor. (Except for that new folding Samsung phone coming down the pike.)

It’s tempting to believe that the age of innovation in smartphones is over and that they have become commoditized. But I’m not so sure.

3D Touch many not have worked out, but I doubt all user interface innovation has dried up in Cupertino. Looming advancements like gesture controls many not replace multi-touch, but they could still revolutionize the way we interact with our devices.