Spend enough time using a touchscreen — any touchscreen — and you're sure to try using gestures on every screen you encounter, even ones without touch.
Apple will never make a touchscreen Mac because, as they told me earlier this year, it does not believe its customers want it.
One company, Neonode, disagrees. The optical sensing startup has been building touch display technology for Kobo and Sony eReaders as well as some automotive touchscreens (Volvo) for years.
Last year, it unveiled a new device, the AirBar, a thin device that fits below any 15-inch Windows 10 laptop screen and adds touch and gesture-sensing to the display. Unlike traditional capacitive touchscreen technology that measures the conductivity from your fingers through the screen, AirBar projects a shallow infrared light field in the space in front of the display, and uses that to track hand and finger movements.
Because AirBar uses infrared light projected in front of the screen, it can do something capacitive screens can't: recognize gestures above the display and ones that start just off the side of the screen (say a swipe in from the left or right).
Windows 10 was designed to be a touch system, so the work to integrate AirBar touch was easy. Apple's MacOS is not designed for touch, so the work took a little longer. But now it's done and you can finally add touch to one of Apple's most popular laptops: the 13-inch MacBook Air.
Setting up the AirBar
The thin, wide and mostly aluminum AirBar ($99) is designed to fit on the MacBook Air's roughly 1-inch deep bezel, just below the screen. It comes with tiny magnets that you affix to the bezel and that match up perfectly with the magnets on the back of the AirBar. While they use adhesive, they're also easy to remove and the AirBar ships with a replacement set of magnets.
There are also two thin printed lines on the AirBar that you use to align with each outer edge of the screen. You won't be able to close the laptop with the roughly 1/4-inch-thick AirBar in place and, if you try to, the AirBar will see your hand touch the top edge of the laptop and emit an alarm. This is not a Bluetooth device. Instead, the AirBar uses a short cable to plug into the MacBook Air's USB port.
On a Windows 10 system, AirBar is plug and play. On the Mac, you'll have to install a driver. Once I had that installed and the AirBar plugged in and in place, it worked pretty much as advertised and, unlike gesture add-ons like Leap Motion, there's no training required. It's as if the MacBook Air finally shipped with a touchscreen.
I could touch even the tiniest button on the MacBook Air screen to click it, use one finger to scroll through a webpage or move around on a map, and a pinching gesture lets you zoom in and out on maps and photos. I can even draw in Paint 2 using just my finger. When I showed some of these tricks to my coworkers, there were literally "oohs" and "aahs."
The gestures can get sophisticated, too. I could use a swipe from the left edge of the screen to reveal the Notification Center and a swipe up with three fingers to reveal Mission Control. (You can toggle on and off any of these controls in AirBar's control center app.)
It's all fairly impressive, but also frustratingly inconsistent.
AirBar made the smart decision to emulate iOS in web browsing apps like Safari, Google Chrome, and Firefox. However, it doesn't always work as anticipated.
In Safari, for example, when I click on a link, swiping in from the left side of the browser screen should take me back to the previous webpage, but when I do it, nothing happens.
Sometimes the AirBar would mistake a pinch for a zoom or lose track of my fingertip and not respond to a tap. Yes, I could draw on screen, but, compared to the Microsoft Surface Pro or iPad Pro, the latency is, at best, inconsistent. Sometimes, the cursor is right there with your fingertip, other times it lags far behind.
AirBar works best with photos, maps, and websites, where tapping, scrolling, slideshows, and pinch and zoom are all you need for a good touch experiences.
If you love your MacBook Air, but are jealous of your Surface Pro friends, this is a good and affordable touch solution. It's not perfect and, since you can't close your laptop while it's in place, a bit of a kludge, but when it works, which is often, it's fast, fun and adds a new dimension of interaction to your MacBook Air experience.