Multi-Touch Systems that I Have Known and Loved

Bill Buxton
Microsoft Research
Original: Jan. 12, 2007
Version:August 5th, 2023

Keywords / Search Terms

Multi-touch, multitouch, input, interaction, touch screen, touch tablet, multi-finger input, multi-hand input, bi-manual input, two-handed input, multi-person input, interactive surfaces, soft machine, hand gesture, gesture recognition .

An earlier version of this page is also available in Belorussian, thanks to the translation by Martha Ruszkowski.

A Greek translation of this page undertaken by Nikolaos Zinas.


Since the announcements of the iPhone and Microsoft's Surface (both in 2007),  an especially large number of people have asked me about multi-touch.The reason is largely because they know that I have been involved in the topic for a number of years.The problem is, I can't take the time to give a detailed reply to each question.So I have done the next best thing (I hope).That is, start compiling my would-be answer in this document.The assumption is that ultimately it is less work to give one reasonable answer than many unsatisfactory ones.

Touch and multi-touch technologies have a long history.To put it in perspective, touch screens were in use in the latter part of the 1960s for air traffic control in Great Britan.  However, the technologies which first introuced touch screen to the public were only able to sense a single touch at a time.  Yet, while it was only with the 2007 launch of the Apple iPhone that the general public became aware devices capable of independently sensing multiple simultaneous touch locations, this capability had already been developed by January 1984, and publicly demonstrated for over twenty years. 

Use another  Apple Computer mile-stone as a reference point, on January 24th, 1984, when the Apple Macintosh was first introduced, multi-touch screens and tablets had already been developed. One example, is a prototype capacitive multi-touch tablet developed at the University of Toronto, which was publicly disclosed and demonstrated in 1985 (Lee, Buxton & Smith, 1985). Another example is multi-touch display developed by Bob Boie at Bell Labs.  I became aware of this work when I was invited to after we presented our work from Toronto.  The Bell Labs work certainly preceded ours, and it was far more advanced - not only because it was a multi-touch screen rather than a tablet.   was far more advanced, 

Does that mean that we or Bell Labs "invented" the multi-touch screen used in the iPhone, and subsequent displays?  Of course not.  On the other hand, neither did Apple.  As is virtually always the case, our work in Toroto, like that of Bell Labs and Apple, was possible by "standing on the shoulders of giants."  Each  "shoulder" in that chain represented a step forward.  In musical terms, it is a case of "riffing off" rather than "ripping off."

A significant "next lnk" in that chain was the PhD work of Wayne Westerman:

If you want to look backwards from his work, just look at the references in his thesis.  He was an excellent researcher.  And in that prior art, he knew the roots of things like the pinch gesture, which date back to 1983.  And from this foundation he built both a body of knowledge, as well as a small successful company which brought his work to market.

Then with the acquisition of that company by Apple Computer, Westerman and his new colleagues at Apple took things to the next level, and integrated an even more refined version into the IPhone.  And the chain continues.

In In putting this page together, an overarching goal is to use the evolution of touch, and especially multi-touch technology as a case study illustrating the nature of technological innovation.  My hope is that this example will help emphasize the importance of balancing "making" with with researching the history / prior art, of the domains relevant to the space within which is working.  And perhaps as an aside, pointing out that one of the key areas where creativity and insight can be exercised in this process lies in the area of determining what constitute "relevant" domains. Great ideas do not grow out of a vacuum.  While marketing and our over subscription to the "cult of the hero" tend to lpursue the "great inventor/genius" myth, that is generally not how great innovation comes about.  If there is a "spark of invention", the data says that that spark typically takes 20-30 years to kindle.  In this sense, the evolution of multi-touch is a text-book example of what I call "The Long Nose of Innovation."

To flesh out this case study, I offer this brief and admitedly incomplete summary of some of the landmark examples which represent what I see as significant links in the chain leading up to multi-touch as we know it today.� And, in the spirit of life-long learning, I apologize for relevant examples, and encourage feeding me with comments and additional examples, etc.�

Note:  for those note used to searching the HCI literature, the primary portal where you can search for and download the relevant literature, including a great deal relating to this topic (including the citations in the Westerman thesis), is the ACM Digital Library:  One other relevant source of interest, should you be interested in an example of the kind of work that has been done studying gestures in interaction, see the thesis by Hummels:


While not the only source on the topic by any means, it is a good example to help gauge what might be considered new or obvious.

Please do not be shy in terms of sending me photos, updates, etc.I will do my best to integrate them.

For more background on input, see also the incomplete draft manuscript for my book on input tools, theories and techniques:

For more background on input devices, including touch screens and tablets, see my directory at:

I hope this helps.

Some Dogma

There is a lot of confusion around touch technologies, and despite a history of over 25 years, until relatively recently (2007), few had heard of multi-touch technology, much less used it. So, given how much impact it is having today, how is it that multi-touch took so long to take hold?

  1. It took 30 years between when the mouse was invented by Engelbart and English in 1965 to when it became ubiquitous, on the release of Windows 95. Yes, a mouse was shipped commercially as early as 1968 with a German computer from Telefunken, and more visibly on the Xerox Star and PERQ workstations in 1982.  Speaking personally,  I used my first mouse in 1972 at the National Research Council of Canada. Yet, none of this made a huge dent in terms of the overal number deployed. It took 30 years to hit the tipping point. By that measure, multi-touch technologies, multi-touch got traction 5 years faster than the mouse!
  2. One of my primary axioms is: Everything is best for something and worst for something else. The trick is knowing what is what, for what, when, for whom, where, and most importantly, why. Those who try the replace the mouse play a fool�s game. The mouse is great for many things. Just not everything.The challenge with new input is to find devices that work together, simultaneously with the mouse (such as in the other hand), or things that are strong where the mouse is weak, thereby complementing it.
  3. A single new technology, no matter how potentially useful, is seldom the cause of a product's overall success.  As with the mouse and multi-touch, a whole new ecosystem was required before their full potential could begin to be exploited.
  4. Arguably, input techniques and technologies have played second-fiddle relative to displays, in terms of investment and attention.  The industry seemed content to try  and make a better mouse, or mouse replacement (such as a trackball or joystick), rather than change the overall paradigm of interaction.

Some Framing

I don�t have time to write a treatise, tutorial or history.What I can do is warn you about a few traps that seem to cloud a lot of thinking and discussion around this stuff.The approach that I will take is to draw some distinctions that I see as meaningful and relevant.These are largely in the form of contrasts:

If you take the complete set of all of the possible variations of all of the above alternatives into consideration, the range is so diverse that I am inclined to say that anyone who describes something as having a touch-screen interface, and leaves it at that, is probably unqualified to discuss the topic.  Okay, I am over-stating.  But just perhaps.  The term "touch screen interface" can mean so many things that, in effect, it means very little, or nothing, in terms of the subtle nuances that define the essence of the interaction, user experience, or appropriateness of the design for the task, user, or context.  One of my purposes for preparing this page is to help raise the level of discourse, so that we can avoid apple-banana type comparisons, and discuss this topic at a level that is worthy of its importance.  And, having made such a lofty claim, I also state clearly that I don't yet understand it all, still get it wrong, and still have people correct me.  But on the other hand, the more explicit we can be in terms of specifics, language and meaningful dimensions of differentiation, the bigger the opportunity for such learning to happen.  That is all that one can hope for.


Some Attributes

As I stated above, my general rule is that everything is best for something and worst for something else.  The more diverse the population is, the places and contexts where they interact, and the nature of the information that they are passing back in forth in those interactions, the more there is room for technologies tailored to the idiosyncrasies of those tasks.

The potential problem with this, is that it can lead to us having to carry around a collection of devices, each with a distinct purpose, and consequently, a distinct style of interaction.  This has the potential of getting out of hand and our becoming overwhelmed by a proliferation of gadgets � gadgets that are on their own are simple and effective, but collectively do little to reduce the complexity of functioning in the world.   Yet, traditionally our better tools have followed this approach.  Just think of the different knives in your kitchen, or screwdrivers in your workshop.  Yes there are a great number of them, but they are the �right ones�, leading to an interesting variation on an old theme, namely, �more is less�, i.e., more (of the right) technology results is less (not more) complexity.  But there are no guarantees here.

What touch screen based �soft machines� offer is the opposite alternative, �less is more�.  Less, but more generally applicable technology results in less overall complexity.  Hence, there is the prospect of the multi-touch soft machine becoming a kind of chameleon that provides a single device that can transform itself into whatever interface that is appropriate for the specific task at hand.  The risk here is a kind of "jack of all trades, master of nothing" compromise.

One path offered by touch-screen driven appliances is this: instead of making a device with different buttons and dials mounted on it, soft machines just draw a picture of the devices, and let you interact with them.  So, ideally, you get far more flexibility out of a single device.  Sometimes, this can be really good.  It can be especially good if, like physical devices, you can touch or operate more than one button, or virtual device at a time.  For an example of where using more than one button or device at a time is important in the physical world, just think of having to type without being able to push the SHIFT key at the same time as the character that you want to appear in upper case.  There are a number of cases where this can be of use in touch interfaces.

Likewise, multi-touch greatly expands the types of gestures that we can use in interaction.  We can go beyond simple pointing, button pushing and dragging that has dominated  our interaction with computers in the past.  The best way that I can relate this to the everyday world is to have you imagine eating Chinese food with only one chopstick, trying to pinch someone with only one fingertip,  or giving someone a hug with � again � the tip of one finger or a mouse.  In terms of pointing devices like mice and joysticks are concerned, we do everything by manipulating just one point around the screen � something that gives us the gestural vocabulary of a fruit fly.  One suspects that we can not only do better, but as users, deserve better.  Multi-touch is one approach to accomplishing this � but by no means the only one, or even the best.  (How can it be, when I keep saying, everything is best for something, but worst for something else).

There is no Free Lunch. 

         Handhelds that rely on touch screens for input virtually all require two hands to operate:one to hold the device and the other to operate it.Thus, operating them generally requires both eyes and both hands.

         Your finger is not transparent:The smaller the touch screen the more the finger(s) obscure what is being pointed at.Fingers do not shrink in the same way that chips and displays do.That is one reason a stylus is sometimes of value:it is a proxy for the finger that is very skinny, and therefore does not obscure the screen.

         There is a reason we don�t rely on finger painting:Even on large surfaces, writing or drawing with the finger is generally not as effective as it is with a brush or stylus.On small format devices it is virtually useless to try and take notes or make drawings using a finger rather than a stylus.If one supports good digital ink and an appropriate stylus and design, one can take notes about as fluently as one can with paper.Note taking/scribble functions are notably absent from virtually all finger-only touch devices.

         Sunshine:We have all suffered trying to read the colour LCD display on our MP3 player, mobile phone and digital camera when we are outside in the sun.At least with these devices, there are mechanical controls for some functions.For example, even if you can�t see what is on the screen, you can still point the camera in the appropriate direction and push the shutter button.With interfaces that rely exclusively on touch screens, this is not the case.Unless the device has an outstanding reflective display,the device risks being unusable in bright sunlight.

Does this property make touch-devices a bad thing? No, not at all. It just means that they are distinct devices with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. The ability to completely reconfigure the interface on the fly (so-called �soft interfaces�) has been long known, respected and exploited. But there is no free lunch and no general panacea. As I have said, everything is best for something and worst for something else. Understanding and weighing the relative implications on use of such properties is necessary in order to make an informed decision. The problem is that most people, especially consumers (but including too many designers) do not have enough experience to understand many of these issues. This is an area where we could all use some additional work. Hopefully some of what I have written here will help.


An Incomplete Roughly Annotated Chronology of Multi-Touch and Related Work


In the beginning ....   Typing & N-Key Rollover (IBM and others).

  • While it may seem a long way from multi-touch screens, the story of multi-touch starts with keyboards.
  • Yes they are mechanical devices, "hard" rather than "soft" machines.  But they do involve multi-touch of a sort.
  • First, most obviously, we see sequences, such as the SHIFT, Control, Fn or ALT keys in combination with others.  These are cases where we want multi-touch.
  • Second, there are the cases of unintentional, but inevitable, multiple simultaneous key presses which we want to make proper sense of, the so-called question of n-key rollover (where you push the next key before releasing the previous one).

Photo Credit


Electroacoustic Music:  The Early Days of Electronic Touch Sensors (Hugh LeCaine , Don Buchla & Bob Moog).

  • The history of touch-sensitive control devices pre-dates the age of the PC
  • A number of early synthesizer and electronic music instrument makers used touch-sensitive capacitance-sensors to control the sound and music being made.
  • These were touch pads, rather than touch screens
  • The tradition of innovating on touch controls for musical purposes continued/continues, and was the original basis for the University of Toronto multitouch surface, as well as the CMU Sensor Frame.

1965: Touch Screen Technology: E.A. Johnson of the Royal Radar Establishment, Malvern, UK.

  • Describes a workable mechanism for developing a touch screen.  What is interesting is that the touch screen used capacitive sensing - as do most consumer devices today.  Photo from Johnson (1967).
  • Was still in use for air traffic control in the UK  in late 1990s.
  • Johnson, E.A. (1965). Touch Display � A novel input/output device for computers. Electronics Letters, 1(8), 219-220.
  • Johnson, E. A.(1967). Touch Displays: A Programmed Man-Machine Interface, Ergonomics, 10(2), 271-277.  Also appears in in W.T. Singleton, R.S. Easterby & D.C. Whitfield (Eds.)(1971).   The Human Operator in Complex Systems.  London: Taylor & Francis, 171-177.
  • Orr, N.W. & Hopkins, V.D. (1968).  The Role of Touch Display in Air Traffic Control.  The Controller, 7, 7-9. 

1972:  PLATO IV Touch Screen Terminal (Computer-based Education Research Laboratory, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champain)

  • One of, if not the, first touch screens to be generally known and used by the public (albeit a small population) by way of the  PLATO IV Computer Assisted Education system, developed in 1972.
  • The initial implementation had a 16 x 16 infra-red light beams running parallel to, and close to the screen surface.  By determining which horizontal and vertical beams were interuppted when the finger touched the screen indicated that a touch had occured, and where on the screen surface.
  • The touch system was developed by Frederick A. Ebeling, Roger L. Johnson, an Richard S. Goldhor, US Patent 3,775,560,   Filed Nov. 28, 1972 / Granted Nov. 27, 1973.
  • The touch technology used was commercialized (in a much improved form) from CarrollTouch, founded by by Arthur Bruce Carroll.
  • It is also the same technique used on the first commercially available PC which came with a touch screen, the 1983 Hewlett Packard HP-150.
  • As well as its use of touch, the PLATO system was remarkable for its use of real-time random-access audio playback, and the invention of the flat panel plasma display.

1978: One-Point Touch Input of Vector Information  (Chris Herot & Guy Weinzapfel, Architecture Machine Group, MIT).


1981: Tactile Array Sensor for Robotics (Jack Rebman, Lord Corporation).

  • A multi-touch sensor designed for robotics to enable sensing of shape, orientation, etc.
  • Consisted of an 8 x 8 array of sensors in a 4" x 4" square pad
  • Usage described in: Wolfeld, Jeffrey A. (1981).  Real Time Control of a Robot Tactile Sensor.  MSc Thesis.  Philadelphia:  Moore School of Electrical Engineering.
  • The figure to the right shows a computer display of the tactile impression of placing a round object on the tactile sensor, shown in the foreground.   Groover, M.P., Weiss, M., Nagel, R.N. & Odrey, N. (1986).  Industrial Robots. New York:  McGraw-Hill, p.152.)
  • A US patent (4,521,685) was issued for this work to Rebman in 1985.

1982: Flexible Machine Interface (Nimish Mehta , University of Toronto).

  • The first multi-touch system that I am aware of designed for human input to a computer system.
  • Consisted of a frosted-glass panel whose local optical properties were such that when viewed behind with a camera a black spot whose size depended on finger pressure appeared on an otherwise white background.  This with simple image processing allowed multi touch input picture drawing, etc. At the time we discussed the notion of a projector for defining the context both for the camera and the human viewer. 
  • Mehta, Nimish (1982), A Flexible Machine Interface, M.A.Sc. Thesis, Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Toronto supervised by Professor K.C. Smith.



1983: Soft Machines (Bell Labs, Murray Hill)

  • This is the first paper that I am aware of in the user interface literature that attempts to provide a comprehensive discussion the properties of touch-screen based user interfaces, what they call �soft machines�.
  • While not about multi-touch specifically, this paper outlined many of the attributes that make this class of system attractive for certain contexts and applications.
  • Nakatani, L. H. & Rohrlich, John A. (1983). Soft Machines: A Philosophy of User-Computer Interface Design. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI�83), 12-15.


1983: Video Place / Video Desk (Myron Krueger)

  • A vision based system that tracked the hands and enabled multiple fingers, hands, and people to interact using a rich set of gestures.
  • Implemented in a number of configurations, including table and wall.
  • Didn�t sense touch, per se, so largely relied on dwell time to trigger events intended by the pose.
  • On the other hand, in the horizontal desktop configuration, it inherently was touch based, from the user's perspective.
  • Essentially �wrote the book� in terms of unencumbered (i.e., no gloves, mice, styli, etc.) rich gestural interaction.
  • Work that was more than a decade ahead of its time and hugely influential, yet not as acknowledged as it should be.
  • His use of many of the hand gestures that are now starting to emerge can be clearly seen in the following 1988 video, including using the pinch gesture to scale and translate objects:
  • There are many other videos that demonstrate this system.  Anyone in the field should view them, as well as read his books:
  • Krueger, Myron, W. (1983). Artificial Reality. Reading, MA:Addison-Wesley.
  • Krueger, Myron, W. (1991). Artificial Reality II. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Krueger, Myron, W., Gionfriddo, Thomas., &Hinrichsen, Katrin (1985). VIDEOPLACE - An Artificial Reality, Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI�85), 35 - 40.

Myron�s work had a staggeringly rich repertoire of gestures, muti-finger, multi-hand and multi-person interaction.


1984: Multi-Touch Screen (Bob Boie, Bell Labs, Murray Hill NJ)

  • A multi-touch touch screen, not tablet. 
  • The first muti-touch screen that I am aware of.
  • Used a transparent capacitive array of touch sensors overlaid on a CRT.  Could manipulate graphical objects with fingers with excellent response time
  • Developed by Bob Boie, but was shown to me by Lloyd Nakatani (see above), who invited me to visit Bell Labs to see it after he saw the presentation of our work at SIGCHI in 1985
  • Since Boie's technology was transparent and faster than ours, when I saw it, my view was that they were ahead of us, so we stopped working on hardware (expecting that we would get access to theirs), and focus on the software and the interaction side, which was our strength. Our assumption (false, as it turned out) was that the Boie technology would become available to us in the near future.
  • Around 1990 I took a group from Xerox to see this technology it since I felt that it would be appropriate for the user interface of our large document processors. This did not work out.
  • There was other multi-touch work at Bell Labs around the time of Boie's. See the 1984 work by Leonard Kasday, ( US Patent 4484179), which used optical techniques

1985: Multi-Touch Tablet (Input Research Group, University of Toronto):


1985:   Sensor Frame  (Carnegie Mellon University)

  • This is work done by Paul McAvinney at Carengie-Mellon University
  • The device used optical sensors in the corners of the frame to detect fingers.
  • At the time that this was done, miniature cameras were essentially unavailable.  Hence, the device used DRAM IC's with glass (as opposed to opaque) covers for imaging.
  • It could sense up to three fingers at a time fairly reliably (but due to optical technique used, there was potential for misreadings due to shadows.
  • In a later prototype variation built with NASA funding, the Sensor Cube, the device could also could detect the angle that the finger came in to the screen.

1986:�Bi-Manual Input  (University of Toronto)

  • In 1985 we did a study, published the following year,  which examined the benefits of two different compound bi-manual tasks that involved continuous control with each hand

  • The first was a positioning/scaling task.  That is, one had to move a shape to a particular location on the screen with one hand, while adjusting its size to match a particular target with the other.

  • The second was a selection/navigation task.  That is, one had to navigate to a particular location in a document that was currently off-screen, with one hand, then select it with the other.

  • Since bi-manual continuous control was still not easy to do (the ADB had not yet been released - see below), we emulated the Macintosh with another computer, a PERQ.

  • The results demonstrated that such continuous bi-manual control was both easy for users, and resulted in significant improvements in performance and learning.

  • See Buxton, W. & Myers, B. (1986). A study in two-handed input. Proceedings of CHI '86, 321-326.[video]

  • Despite this capability being technologically and economically viable since 1986 (with the advent of the ADB - see below - and later USB), there are still no mainstream systems that take advantage of this basic capability.  Too bad.

  • This is an example of techniques developed for multi-device and multi-hand that can easily transfer to multi-touch devices.



1987-88: Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) and the Trackball Scroller Init (Apple Computer / University of Toronto)

  • In 1986, Apple first released the Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) on the Apple IIGS. This can be thought of as an early version of the USB.

  • Starting with the 1987 launch of the Macintosh II and the Macintosh SE, the ADB was included in all Macintosh computers for 10 years, until in 1998, the iMac replaced it with USB

  • The ADB supported plug-and-play, and also enabled multiple input devices (keyboards, trackballs, joysticks, mice, etc.) to be plugged into the same computer simultaneously.

  • The only downside was that if you plugged in two pointing devices, by default,  the software did not distinguish them.  They both did the same thing, and if a mouse and a trackball were operate at the same time (which they could be) a kind of tug-of-war resulted for the tracking symbol on the screen.

  • By 1988, Gina Venolia of Apple's Advanced Technology Group (ATG) developed tools that which enabled her to distinguish the input stream from each device and direct each to a particular parameter - her work mainly focusing on 3D manipulation of objects.

  • Knowing about this work, my group at the University of Toronto wanted to take advantage of this multi-device capability in order to support the bi-manual input work growing out of that described above.

  • Gina Venolia assisted Michael Chen (a past student from our group, then also at Apple's ATG), to produce an "init" for us, based on Gina's earlier work, the trackballscroller init, for us

  • For example, it enabled the mouse  to be designated the pointing device, and a trackball to control scrolling independently in X and Y. 

  • See, for example, Buxton, W. (1990). The Natural Language of Interaction: A Perspective on Non-Verbal Dialogues. In Laurel, B. (Ed.). The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. 405-416.

  • We were able to use the init to control a range of other functions, such as described in, Kabbash, P., Buxton, W.& Sellen, A. (1994). Two-Handed Input in a Compound Task. Proceedings of CHI '94, 417-423.

  • In short, with this technology, we were able to deliver the benefits demonstrated by Buxton & Myers (see above) on standard hardware, without changes to the operating system, and largely, with out changes even to the applications.

  • To our collective disappointment, Apple never took advantage of this - one of their most interesting - innovations.


1991: Bidirectional Displays (Bill Buxton & Colleagues , Xerox PARC)

         First discussions about the feasibility of making an LCD display that was also an input device, i.e., where pixels were input as well as output devices. Led to two initiatives.(Think of thepaper-cup and string �walkie-talkies� that we all made as kids:the cups were bidirectional and functioned simultaneously as both a speaker and a microphone.)

         Took the high res 2Da-Si scanner technology used in our scanners and adding layers to make them displays.The bi-directional motivation got lost in the process, but the result was the dpix display (;

         The Liveboard project.The rear projection Liveboard was initially conceived as a quick prototype of a large flat panel version that used a tiled array of bi-directional dpix displays.


1991: Digital Desk(Pierre Wellner,  Rank Xerox EuroPARC, Cambridge)

  • A classic paper in the literature on augmented reality.
  • Wellner, P. (1991).  The Digital Desk Calculator:  Tactile manipulation on a desktop display.  Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST '91), 27-33.
  • An early front projection tablet top system that used optical and acoustic techniques to sense both hands/fingers as well as certain objects, in particular, paper-based controls and data.
  • Clearly demonstrated multi-touch concepts such as two finger scaling and translation of graphical objects, using either a pinching gesture or a finger from each hand, among other things.
  • For example, see segment starting at 6:30 in the following 1991 video demo:


1992:  Simon (IBM & Bell South)

  • IBM and Bell South release what was arguably the world's first smart phone, the Simon.
  • What is of historical interest is that the Simon, like the iPhone, relied on a touch-screen driven �soft machine� user interface.
  • While only a single-touch device, the Simon foreshadows a number of aspects of what we are seeing in some of the touch-driven mobile devices that we see today.
  • Sidebar:  my two working Simons are among the most prized pieces in my collection of input devices.

1992:  Wacom (Japan)

  • In 1992 Wacom introduced their UD series of digitizing tablets.  These were special in that they had mutli-device / multi-point sensing capability.  They could sense the position of the stylus and tip pressure, as well as simultaneously sense the position of a mouse-like puck.  This enabled bimanual input.
  • Working with Wacom, my lab at the University of Toronto developed a number of ways to exploit this technology to far beyond just the stylus and puck.  See the work on Graspable/Tangible interfaces, below.
  • Their next two generations of tablets, the Intuos 1 (1998) and Intuos 2 (2001) series extended the multi-point capability.  It enabled the sensing of the location of the stylus in x and y, plus tilt in x and tilt in y (making the stylus a location-sensitive joystick, in effect), tip pressure, and value from a side-mounted dial on their airbrush stylus.  As well, one could simultaneously sense the position and rotation of the puck, as well as the rotation of a wheel on its side.  In total, one was able to have control of 10 degrees of freedom using two hands.
  • While this may seem extravagant  and hard to control, that all depended on how it was used.  For example, all of these signals, coupled with bimanual input, are needed to implement any digital airbrush worthy of the name.   With these technologies we were able to do just that with my group at Alias|Wavefront, again, with the cooperation of Wacom.
  • See also: Leganchuk, A., Zhai, S.& Buxton, W. (1998).Manual and Cognitive Benefits of Two-Handed Input: An Experimental Study.Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction, 5(4), 326-359.


1992: Starfire (Bruce Tognazinni, SUN Microsystems)

         Bruce Tognazinni produced an future envisionment film, Starfire, that included a number of multi-hand, multi-finger interactions, including pinching, etc.


1994: Flip Keyboard(Bill Buxton, Xerox PARC):

        A multi-touch pad integrated into the bottom of a keyboard.  You flip the keyboard to gain access to the multi-touch pad for rich gestural control of applications.

        Buxton, W. (1994). Combined keyboard / touch tablet input device, Xerox Disclosure Journal, 19(2), 109-111.

  Click here for video ( From 2002 implementation with Tactex Controls)

Sound Synthesizer                              Audio Mixer
Graphics on multi-touch surface defining controls for various virtual devices.


1994-2002: Bimanual Research (Alias|Wavefront, Toronto)

  • Developed a number of innovative techniques for multi-point / multi-handed input for rich manipulation of graphics and other visually represented objects.
  • Only some are mentioned specifically on this page.
  • There are a number of videos can be seen which illustrate these techniques, along with others:
  • Also see papers on two-handed input to see examples of multi-point manipulation of objects at:

1995: Graspable/Tangible Interfaces (Input Research Group, University of Toronto)

·         Demonstrated concept and later implementation of sensing the identity, location and even rotation of multiple physical devices on a digital desk-top display and using them to control graphical objects.

·         By means of the resulting article and associated thesis introduced the notion of what has come to be known as �graspable� or �tangible� computing.

·         Fitzmaurice, G.W., Ishii, H. & Buxton, W. (1995). Bricks: Laying the foundations for graspable user interfaces. Proceedings of the ACMSIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI'95), 442�449.


1995/97: Active Desk (Input Research Group / Ontario Telepresence Project,University of Toronto)

  • Around 1992 we made a drafting table size desk that had a rear-projection data display, where the rear projection screen/table top was a translucent stylus controlled digital graphics tablet (Scriptel).  The stylus was operated with the dominant hand.  Prior to 1995 we mounted a camera bove the table top.  It tracked the position of the non-dominant hand on the tablet surface,  as well as the pose (open angle) between the thumb and index finger.  The non-dominant hand could grasp and manipulate objects based on what it was over and opening and closing the grip on the virtual object.  This vision work was done by a student, Yuyan Liu.
  • Buxton,W. (1997). Living in Augmented Reality: Ubiquitous Media and Reactive Environments. In K. Finn, A. Sellen & S. Wilber (Eds.).  Video Mediated Communication. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 363-384. An earlier version of this chapter also appears in Proceedings of Imagina '95, 215-229.

Simultaneous bimanual and multi-finger interaction on large interactive display surface


1997: T3 (Alias|Wavefront, Toronto)

  • T3 was a bimanual tablet-based system that utilized a number of techniques that work equally well on multi-touch devices, and have been used thus.
  • These include, but are not restricted to grabbing the drawing surface itself from two points and scaling its size (i.e., zooming in/out) by moving the hands apart or towards each other (respectively). Likewise the same could be done with individual graphical objects that lay on the background. (Note, this was simply a multi-point implementation of a concept seen in Ivan Sutherland�s Sketchpad system.)
  • Likewise, one could grab the background or an object and rotate it using two points, thereby controlling both the pivot point and degree of the rotation simultaneously. Ditto for translating (moving) the object or page.
  • Of interest is that one could combine these primitives, such as translate and scale, simultaneously (ideas foreshadowed by Fitzmaurice�s graspable interface work � above).
  • Kurtenbach, G., Fitzmaurice, G., Baudel, T. & Buxton, W. (1997). The design and evaluation of a GUI paradigm based on tabets, two-hands, and transparency. Proceedings of the 1997 ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI '97, 35-42. [ Video].

1997: The Haptic Lens (Mike Sinclair, Georgia Tech / Microsoft Research)

  • The Haptic Lens, a multi-touch sensor that had the feel of clay, in that it deformed the harder you pushed, and resumed it basic form when released. A novel and very interesting approach to this class of device.
  • Sinclair, Mike (1997). The Haptic Lens. ACM SIGGRAPH 97 Visual Proceedings: The art and interdisciplinary programs of SIGGRAPH '97, Page: 179

2000: MTC Express Multi-Touch Controller, Tactex Controls (Victoria BC)

  • I believe this to be the first commercially available multi-touch controller.
  • Used an optical sensor technology developed by, and licensed from, the Canadian Space Agency (US Patent 5,917,180)
  • Work on the controller began in 1998 and the product shipped in 2000.
  • It was marketed mainly as a controller for electronic musical instruments.
  • See video at:
Tactex MTC Express Multi-Touch Controller

2000: FingerWorks MultiTouch Evaluation System (Newark, Delaware).

  • Fingerworks was founded in 1998 by John Elias and Wayne Westerman of the University of Delaware.
  • The objective was to productize work resulting from Westerman's 1999 PhD thesis, Hand Tracking,Finger Identification, and Chordic Manipulation on a Multi-Touch Surface, done under the supervision of Elias.
  • The MultTouch Evaluation System was a prototype for a product initially named FingerBoard.
  • It was not for sale.  I believe only 3 were made and thay were used for user testing.
  • The device used capacitive multitouch to provide an innovative combination of keyboard, mouse, and gesture-shorthand commands.
  • The producct which emerged from this work was the FingerWorks TouchStream, released in 2002 (see below).
FingerWorks FingerBoard Evaluation System

1999: Portfolio Wall (Alias|Wavefront,Toronto On, Canada)

  • A product that was a digital cork-board on which images could be presented as a group or individually. Allowed images to be sorted, annotated, and presented in sequence.
  • Due to available sensor technology, did not us multi-touch; however, its interface was entirely based on finger touch gestures that went well beyond what typical touch screen interfaces were doing at the time, and which are only now starting to appear on some touch-based mobile devices.
  • For example, to advance to the next slide in a sequence, one flicked to the right. To go back to the previous image, one flicked left.
  • The gestures were much richer than just left-right flicks.  One could instigate different behaviours, depending on which direction you moved your finger.
  • In this system, there were eight options, corresponding to the 8 main points of the compass.  For example, a downward gesture over a video meant "stop".  A gesture up to the right enabled annotation.  Down to the right launched the application associated with the image.  etc.
  • They were self-revealing, could be done eyes free, and leveraged previous work on �marking menus.�
  • See a number of demos at:

Touch to open/close image 
Flick right = next
Flick left = previous

Portfolio Wall (1999)


2001: Diamond Touch (Mitsubishi Research Labs, Cambridge MA)

  • example capable of distinguishing which person's  fingers/hands are which, as well as location and pressure
  • various gestures and rich gestures.

2002: Fingerworks TouchStream (Newark, Delaware).

  • Shipping version of the previously named FingerBoard which emerged from the 2000 FingerWorks MultiTouch Evaluation System discussed above.
  • Shipped in 2002.
  • Main innovation was in its use of multitouch and gesture shortcuts to provide an alternative to conventional keyboard and mouse.
  • While not gaining huge market share, it did acquire a strong dedicated base of users
  • Perhpas its key significance is that this is the device which paved the way for the 2005 acquisition of FingerWorks by Apple Computer, and which led to Elias and Westerman moving to Apple, and the incorporation of capacitive multi-touch into the iPhone.
  • The company was acquired in early 2005 by Apple Computer.
  •  moved to Apple.
  • Fingerworks ceased operations as an independent company.
  • Documentation including tutorials and manuals are still downloadable from:
FingerWorks TouchStream

2002: HandGear + GRT. DSI Datotech (Vancouver BC)


2002: Jun Rekimoto Sony Computer Science Laboratories (Tokyo)

  • SmartSkin: an architecture for making interactive surfaces that are sensitive to human hand and finger gestures. This sensor recognizes multiple hand positions and their shapes as well as calculates the distances between the hands and the surface by using capacitive sensing and a mesh-shaped antenna. In contrast to camera-based gesture recognition systems, all sensing elements can be integrated within the surface, and this method does not suffer from lighting and occlusion problems.
  • SmartSkin: An Infrastructure for Freehand Manipulation on Interactive Surfaces. Proceedings of ACM SIGCHI.
  • Kentaro Fukuchi and Jun Rekimoto, Interaction Techniques for SmartSkin, ACM UIST2002 demonstration, 2002.
  • SmartSkin demo at Entertainment Computing 2003 (ZDNet Japan)
  • Video demos available at website, above.

2002: Andrew Fentem (UK)

  • States that he has  been working on multi-touch for music and general applications since 2002
  • However, appears not to have published any technical information or details on this work in the technical or scientific literature.
  • Hence, the work from this period is not generally known, and - given the absence of publications - has not been cited.
  • Therefore it has had little impact on the larger evolution of the field.
  • This is one example where I am citing work that I have not known and loved for the simple reason that it took place below the radar of normal scientific and technical exchange.
  • I am sure that there are several similar instances of this.  Hence I include this as an example representing the general case.

2003:  University of Toronto (Toronto)

         paper outlining a number of techniques for multi-finger, multi-hand, and multi-user on a single interactive touch display surface.

         Many simpler and previously used techniques are omitted since they were known and obvious.

         Mike Wu, Mike & Balakrishnan, Ravin (2003).  Multi-Finger and Whole Hand Gestural Interaction Techniques for Multi-User Tabletop Displays.  CHI Letters

Freeform rotation.  (a) Two fingers are used to rotate an object.  (b) Though the pivot finger is lifted, the second finger can continue the rotation.

This parameter adjustment widget allows two-fingered manipulation.


2003: Jazz Mutant (Bordeaux France)

  • Make one of the first transparent multi-touch, one that became � to the best of my knowledge � the first to be offered in a commercial product.
  • The product for which the technology was used was the Lemur,a music controller with a true multi-touch screen interface.
  • An early version of the Lemur was first shown in public in LA in August of 2004.
  • Jazz Mutant is the company that sells the music product, while Stantum is the sibling company set up to sell the underlying multi-touch technology to other

2004: Neonode N1 Mobile Phone (Stockholm, Sweden)

  • Touch screen phone announced in 2002 but not shipped until mid-2004.
  • Interaction mainly with d-pad and touch screen
  • Senses touch using the same basic concept at the 1972 PLATO system, and its derivative commercialized by Carroll Touch, i.e., the bezel of the display has pairs of optical sensors facing each other along the horizontal and vertical axes, and touch is sensed when the finger interpupts the sensors' light path.
  • While seen previously on other touch-screen devices, such as the Portfolio Wall, this was the first touch-screen phone to go beyond primarily tapping on "light buttons" and make substantial use of finger swipe-type gestures.
  • Was primary example of prior art in challenges to the iPhone's  "Swipe-to-Unlock' patent.
  • Touch-screen incorporated so-called "haptic" tactile-vibratory feedback.
  • For Pen Computing review, see:
  • For video walk-through, see:


2004: TouchLight (Andy Wilson, Microsoft Research):�

         TouchLight (2004).A touch screen display system employing a rear projection display and digital image processing that transforms an otherwise normal sheet of acrylic plastic into a high bandwidth input/output surface suitable for gesture-based interaction.Video demonstration on website.

         Capable of sensing multiple fingers and hands, of one or more users.

         Since the acrylic sheet is transparent, the cameras behind have the potential to be used to scan and display paper documents that are held up against the screen .


2005: Blask� and Steven Feiner (Columbia University):

         Using pressure to access virtual devices accessible below top layer devices

         G�bor Blask� and Steven Feiner (2004). Single-Handed Interaction Techniques for Multiple Pressure-Sensitive Strips,
Proc. ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2004) Extended Abstracts,1461-1464


2005: PlayAnywhere (Andy Wilson, Microsoft Research):�

         PlayAnywhere (2005).Video on website

         Contribution: sensing and identifying of objects as well as touch.

         A front-projected computer vision-based interactive table system.

         Addresses installation, calibration, and portability issues that are typical of most vision-based table systems.

         Uses an improvedshadow-based touch detection algorithm for sensing both fingers and hands, as well as objects.

         Object can be identified and tracked using a fast, simple visual bar code scheme.Hence, in addition to manual mult-touch, the desk supports interaction using various physical objects, thereby also supporting graspable/tangible style interfaces.

         It can also sense particular objects, such as a piece of paper or a mobile phone, and deliver appropriate and desired functionality depending on which..


2005: Jeff Han (NYU):
2006: (Perceptive Pixel:

         Very elegant implementation of a number of techniques and applications on a table format rear projection surface.

         Multi-Touch Sensing through Frustrated Total Internal Reflection (2005). Video on website.

         Formed Peceptive Pixel in 2006 in order to further develop the technology in the private sector

         See the more recent videos at the Perceptive Pixel site:


2005: Tactiva (Palo Alto)

         Have announced and shown video demos of a product called the TactaPad.

         It uses optics to capture hand shadows and superimpose on computer screen, providing a kind of immersive experience, that echoes back to Krueger (see above)

         Is multi-hand and multi-touch

         Is tactile touch tablet, i.e., the tablet surface feels different depending on what virtual object/control you are touching


2005: Toshiba Matsusita Display Technology (Tokyo)

         Announce and demonstrate LCD display with �Finger Shadow Sensing Input� capability

         One of the first examples of what I referred to above in the 1991 Xerox PARC discussions.It will not be the last.

         The significance is that there is no separate touch sensing transducer.Just as there are RGB pixels that can produce light at any location on the screen, so can pixels detect shadows at any location on the screen, thereby enabling multi-touch in a way that is hard for any separate touch technology to match in performance or, eventually, in price.


2005:  Tomer Moscovich & collaborators (Brown University)

         a number of papers on web site:

         T. Moscovich, T. Igarashi, J. Rekimoto, K. Fukuchi, J. F. Hughes. "A Multi-finger Interface for Performance Animation of Deformable Drawings." Demonstration at UIST 2005 Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology, Seattle, WA, October 2005. (video)


2006:  Benko & collaborators (Columbia University & Microsoft Research)

         Some techniques for precise pointing and selection on muti-touch screens

         Benko, H., Wilson, A. D., and Baudisch, P. (2006). Precise Selection Techniques for Multi-Touch Screens. Proc. ACM CHI 2006 (CHI'06: Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1263�1272



2006: Plastic Logic (Cambridge UK)

  • A flexible e-ink display mounted over a multi-point touch pad, thereby creating an interactive multi-touch  display.
  • Was an early prototype of their ill-fated QUE e-reader


2006: Synaptics & Pilotfish (San Jose)

         Jointly developed Onyx,a soft multi-touch mobile phone concept using transparent Synaptics touch sensor.Can sense difference of size of contact.Hence, the difference between finger (small) and cheek (large), so you can answer the phone just by holding to cheek, for example.


2007: Apple iPhone

  • Like the 1992 Simon (see above), a mobile phone with a soft touch-based interface.
  • Outstanding industrial design and very smooth interaction.
  • Employed multi-touch capability to a limited degree
  • Uses it, for example, to support the "pinching" technique introduced by Krueger, i.e., using the thumb and index finger of one hand to zoom in or out of a map or photo.
  • Works especially well with web pages in the browser
  • Uses Alias Portfolio Wall type gestures to flick forward and backward through a sequence of images.
  • Did not initially enable use of multi-touch to hold shift key with one finger in order to type an upper case character with another with the soft virtual keyboard.  This did not get implemented until about a year after its release.

2007: Microsoft Surface Computing

  • Interactive table surface
  • Capable of sensing multiple fingers and hands
  • Capable of identifying various objects and their position on the surface
  • Commercial manifestation of internal research begun in 2001 by Andy Wilson (see above) and Steve Bathiche
  • Image is displayed by rear-projection and input is captured opticaly via cameras
  • A key indication of this technology making the transition from research, development and demo to mainstream commercial applications.
  • See also ThinSight and Surface 2.0


2007: ThinSight, (Microsoft Research Cambridge,UK)

  • Thin profile multi-touch technology that can be used with LCD displays.
  • Hence, can be accommodated by laptops, for example
  • Optical technology, therefore capable of sensing both fingers and objects
  • Therefore, can accommodate both touch and tangible styles of interaction
  • Research undertaken and published by Microsoft Research
  • see also Surface 2.0


2008: N-trig

  • Commercially multi-touch sensor
  • Can sense finger and stylus simultaneously
  • unlike most touch sensors that support a stylus, this incorporates specialized stylus sensor
  • result is much higher quality digital ink from stylus
  • Incorporated into some recent Tablet-PCs
  • Technology scales to larger formats, such as table-top size


2011: Surface  2.0 (Microsoft & Samsung)

  • 4" thick version of Surface
  • Rear projection and projectors replaced by augmented LCD technology
  • builds on research such as ThinSight
  • result is more that just a multi-touch surface
  • since pixels have integrated optical sensors, the whole display is also an imager
  • hence, device can "see" what is placed on it, including shapes, bar-codes, text, drawings, etc. - and yes - fingers