Multitouch and the quest to make ereaders more flexible than paper

Pinch. Flip. Curate? LiquidText brings multitouch control to content.


LiquidText founder and CEO Craig Tashman (@CraigTashman) says his annotation and document manipulation software began as an academic project, but commercial applications quickly became clear as students participating in the research started asking for copies. The software allows users to annotate, highlight and manipulate PDF content with multitouch gestures. It may be the next major step toward making etextbooks more practical for students — and it’s another nail in the coffin for the “death of marginalia” debate.

I reached out to Tashman to find out more about his research-cum-business project. Our interview follows.

LiquidText will also be featured in the next TOC Sneak Peek webcast on August 25.

What’s the story behind LiquidText?


Craig Tashman: LiquidText actually began with an observation about multitouch technology — being able to detect several fingers at once on a touch screen. We could see that it had this amazing potential for letting people interact with computers in much more expressive ways. Instead of the single input point on a mouse, you now have 10 inputs — fingers — that can coordinate with one another, or work in patterns.

At the time, multitouch was largely being used in attractive demos with little practical application. So we thought about how it might be applied to real-world activities, such as reading and writing, and how those tasks could be improved by giving people a much richer way to interact. The answer we found was that, to really take advantage of this technology, we couldn’t just paste stretching and pinching on top of traditional ereader software. Instead, we had to reconceive the reading experience itself in the context of multitouch, envisioning anew how people would want to work with documents.

Initially, this was just an academic research project, but participants in our studies got to try out our earlier prototypes and they asked for copies. So we started exploring commercialization, and the rest is history.

How does LiquidText work? Does it work with any kind of content?

Craig Tashman: LiquidText helps people read and make sense of long, complex documents — it lets people annotate, visualize, and navigate text documents in highly flexible ways using a collection of powerful, natural multitouch gestures.

As people read, they often take margin notes, compare different sections of a text, make outlines, highlight, and so forth. But a lot of research, including our own, has shown that people often struggle with this very “active” form of reading. LiquidText facilitates this kind of reading by giving people multitouch interactions that offer more flexible control of how content is visualized, annotated, and navigated.

For example, one can pinch together parts of a document to bring disparate areas into proximity to compare them, or one can touch two text selections at once to create a link between them. Cumulatively, these functions together with those addressing annotation, note taking and other parts of the reading process let LiquidText bring to the world of ereaders even greater flexibility than paper.

Our first shipping product will be an iPad app, expected to be released later this year. This app will let people import standard, unprotected PDF documents and manipulate them using most of the same LiquidText interactions seen in the prototype version we use in our demos.

Which audiences do you imagine will benefit most from this technology?

Craig Tashman: LiquidText seems to provide the most benefit for reading documents that are complex as well as long — situations where a person’s memory is strained keeping track of both the past content and one’s own thoughts and reflections.

This audience includes tens of millions of knowledge workers and students, but our studies point to a few groups in particular. College students, for example, are especially well suited to the features of LiquidText, as they gradually read things like textbooks where they have to build and maintain an understanding of a text over the course of months. I also think LiquidText would be quite appropriate for legal and analytic work, where identifying relationships and inconsistencies within a text can be critical.

Do you envision LiquidText changing reading behavior?

Craig Tashman: On a broad scale, I think LiquidText can enable a wider shift to electronic books, especially in higher education where ebooks tend to underperform in comparison to their paper counterparts. On a finer scale, we have already seen a shift in how people read and take notes using LiquidText. For example, rather than only annotating the document itself, people are much more likely to create elaborate note spaces with comments and excerpts using our technology. Effectively, they seem more likely to create intermediate documents that reorganize the content of the original and integrate it with their own thoughts.

Can you share your launch schedule? What platforms are you targeting?

Craig Tashman: We are not setting a date in stone for LiquidText for the iPad since we want to ensure the app is well tested and has solid PDF compatibility before releasing it, but we are planning to have the beta out later this year.

LiquidText for the iPad is being targeted very broadly, but we have also been exploring partnering with higher education publishers to develop a version of the software for reading etextbooks.

As for platforms, right now we’re focused on small, portable devices like the iPad. But internally, we have explored using LiquidText on touch screens ranging up to 30 inches in size, and we think that certain applications, such as intelligence analysis, would really benefit from that type of hardware.

Webcast: TOC Sneak Peek at BookRiff, LiquidText, and MagAppZine — Sneak Peeks are a TOC webcast series featuring a behind-the-scenes look at publishing start-ups and their products. Our next episode will feature presentations from BookRiff, LiquidText, and MagAppZine.

Join us on Thursday, August 25, 2011, at 10 am PT

Register for this free webcast

This interview was edited and condensed.


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