Is it a laptop, a tablet, or both? After the din this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show died down, we were reminded of the lively “Last Gadget Standing” contest, where the loudest cheers and applause determine the winning gadget by popular demand. Despite all the noise on tablets and phones and Smart TV, the “applause-o-meter” favored new device that looks an awfully lot like a laptop. Or is it a tablet? You decide.
The Acer Iconia is a dual screen all-touch device clearly in a laptop form factor, but without a physical keyboard and with the two touch screens hinged together. It’s based on the Intel Core i5 processor and as it turns out, it has a lot more Intel inside that just the chip.
The keyboard-free design was conceived over 3 years ago by a small team in Intel’s PC Client Group, which then built a complete working prototype and licensed the design to Acer.
Here’s the story of how the team brought this groundbreaking design to life, including some of the numerous obstacles and engineering challenges they overcame.
Users skew original 7-inch design for Windows, big screens
Starting in 2007, a skunk works team inside Intel formed to build a dual-screen, touch-capable device. According to several team members, the first iteration of the design – codenamed “San Rafael” – had two 7-inch screens similar to Toshiba’s libretto concept PC. Ironically in mid-2008, lead software architect Steve Bateman recalled it didn’t go over well.
“We tested it with users and people didn’t want it,” Bateman said.
The team had foam models of other designs and smaller form factors in these meetings but users always gravitated to the biggest, laptop-sized model, Bateman recalled. And at the time, users weren’t willing to give up Microsoft Windows.
Based on this feedback, Bateman, a 3-D hobbyist, came up with usage models and mocked them up in a video. The general idea was to offer two major modes: laptop-sized multi-touch to enable dual-screen browsing or content navigation, and a traditional keyboard with a trackpad.
The team took the video and a new foam model to another focus group, and “it just blew them away,” Bateman said. “We were surprised by how excited they got about it.”
Motivated by this enthusiastic response, the team committed to building a working prototype, from the hardware on up to the user experience.
Obstacle #1: No large touchscreen exists
“We started this with no touchscreen,” said Charlie Case, the team’s lead hardware engineer. “That was a big risk on our part.”
Touchscreen vendors, with more business than they could handle, were only building up to 4-inch screens that were limited to two-finger multi-touch. The few large touchscreens that existed were too expensive and offered limited features. And vendors had little incentive to build a difficult prototype that might not work or even have any significant market.
“So, we went to Best Buy and bought an iPod Touch, pulled the screen off, and made our own touch controller in the lab,” Case said. “Then we just begged, borrowed, and stole bigger and bigger screens until we got to the bigger [13-inch] one.”
Case did the soldering, and Bateman wrote the firmware, which led to the second major obstacle.
Obstacle #2: No one has done all-points multi-touch on Windows
While the team had put together an acceptably low-cost hardware solution for the screen, the big variable was the software. Most touchscreens only handle two-finger input, allowing users to swipe, pinch or type with two fingertips. Any input bigger than two fingers is ignored.
But as a full-sized device, “it’s got to be able to do everything your notebook can do now or else, why would you ever buy it?” Bateman said.
That means the machine needed to support a full keyboard that any user could easily adapt to. But Windows 7 includes only limited touch functionality.
A full-size virtual keyboard sounds straightforward enough, but Case and Bateman tried dozens of experiments and rounds of physical testing to make it work. “It’s a bigger panel, which makes it exponentially harder” than a smart phone-sized screen, according to Case.
Users commonly rest their hands on the keyboard while reading, for instance, so the software needed to detect the difference between typing and resting.
Obstacle #3: Virtual keyboard must be average user easy
After months of tinkering and testing and aid from Intel Labs in machine vision, the team coded the screen to capture input as a compressed image and send that image to a host for interpretation. Any shape, including complex 10-finger inputs or even non-finger input such as palm or thumb shapes, could be translated into commands for Windows.
At this point, the program’s big go/no-go decision rested on a set of user studies to see if off-the-street users could handle the keyboard. While the team admits you wouldn’t have wanted to bang out your first novel on this machine, users were able to type proficiently and the project was given the green light to continue. These user studies gave the team the confidence to more forward.
Obstacle #4: Get an OEM on board
The team built a complete working prototype using the Intel Core i5 with integrated graphics so they could understand all the complexities of integration and then showcase the end user experience.
In mid-2009, the team took its full working prototype into a meeting with Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini and leaders from Acer to pitch the project and show the working demo.
“So many times we’ve had demos fail, but for once the demo gods were shining on us,” said team program manager David Mittelstadt.
Acer liked what they saw and signed on to buy the technology from Intel. Eighteen months and a whole new set of obstacles later – like getting a vendor to create the big, feature-packed touchscreen, modifying BIOS code to enable the virtual keyboard on bootup, and balancing tradeoffs for cost – the Acer Iconia is set to launch by the end March 2011. Pricing is not yet disclosed.