Inside the HP TouchSmart PC software: HP SmartCenter – Part 3

April 17, 2008 7:30 pm

Welcome to part 3 of this mini-series. Last time around you heard a little bit about the early prototypes and how things progressed from there. This time I’ll talk a bit more about some of the functionality in HP SmartCenter and some of the things we were not able to address before having to ship.

The guiding principles for HP SmartCenter and the other touch-optimized applications were to provide quick, “transactional” experiences, to have the applications be as intuitive as possible to use, and have them look polished and clean. HP SmartCenter was to be the “home page” for touch-based interactions with the PC. It had to easily give the user access to key Media Center experiences (TV, music, games) as well as two other touch-optimized programs HP was developing (HP SmartCalendar and HP Photosmart Touch). Finally the user had to have the ability to add access to a certain number of programs of their choice.

To enable some of the quick, “transactional” experiences using a touch screen, HP SmartCenter had to have large “target” areas that are easy to hit using a finger. This requirement helped making decisions about the layout of the “tiles” that the user touches to “launch” something.

We wanted to highlight a few of the key features of the TouchSmart suite of software. We decided that three tiles would be larger than the remaining ones, and that those three would be able to show more details from the underlying program than the smaller tiles. The calendar tile, for example, will pull three upcoming events out of the calendar program and display key information about those events right within the calendar tile. The Photosmart Touch tile will look for pictures in the My Pictures folder and display five of those in a rotation. The weather tile will display high and low temperatures expected for the day as well as the current temperature as reported by the weather service. The analog and digital clock tiles will display two additional clocks (probably configured for different time zones) in text form, in addition to the main clock, which is shown in a larger, graphical look.

The three user configurable tiles would be able to either start a program on the system or a web page, using Internet Explorer. We settled on only having three configurable items, since there was an overall limit in the graphical design at nine small tiles plus three large tiles, and we wanted to encourage people to stick with tiles that didn’t take you out of a touch-optimized / touch oriented environment.

Beyond picking a software development technology (WPF), our other challenges were the many changes in both Windows Vista and WPF as both matured. WPF introduced “breaking changes” several times in our short cycle, and we discovered numerous problems with the integration of WPF and Windows Media Center. We worked closely with Microsoft to get these addressed. But a few problems remained, one of which is that every time you start one of the programs we developed, the computer screen will go black for a few seconds. It gives you the unsettling feeling that something went wrong, but it’s actually a consequence of the interactions between certain software components that are controlling the graphics card (DirectX, WPF and Media Center). As much as we didn’t like it, we were out of time to address these problems by the time our shipping date came.

That’s a wrap for part 3. Next time you’ll hear about the reactions from the team when information about the TouchSmart PC was leaked to Engadget way before the actual launch event, and I’ll also talk a little about the launch at CES 2007.

Update (2008-04-30): Part four is now posted.

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