Hands-on: AirBar turns MacBook Air into a touchscreen laptop

Posted:
in General Discussion edited January 5
AirBar on Wednesday showed off a prototype "plug-and-touch" USB device that turns Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air into a touchscreen laptop, a feat accomplished through infrared light, sensors and other proprietary technology.




While not as responsive as the capacitive multitouch screen on an iPad, the prototype AirBar AppleInsider was able to play with today was surprisingly intuitive.

On a basic level, the USB-connected device can be thought of as a giant one-to-one virtual trackpad overlaid atop MacBook Air's display.

Like AirBar's PC version, which has been available for some time, the MacBook Air iteration is attached via two round magnets positioned just below the screen. The light blasting and sensing unit that snaps onto the posts is thin, but not thin enough that it can be left permanently affixed when the clamshell is closed.

With sturdy yet lightweight materials, AirBar shares a similar raw aluminum aesthetic with its host MacBook Air. Black plastic end caps keep the device off the screen surface, protecting it from scratches.

Plugging in AirBar to one of MacBook Air's USB ports automatically activates the unit, which fires an infrared light field onto the display. Light sensors embedded in AirBar's body detect objects -- fingers, styli, bananas -- that break the field, while specialized software plots the position of said objects relative to onscreen graphical assets. The result is a tad more responsive than holographic or competing optics-based input methods.

Getting a response from touching MacBook Air's screen is oddly satisfying.

We did experience a bit of lag and misidentified touch inputs while testing AirBar in the supplied paint app, but those quirks should be ironed out before the device ships. Whether the peripheral can achieve a level of precision offered by dedicated laptops and convertibles with capacitive touchscreens remains to be seen.

Though multitouch gestures like swipes, pinches and multi-finger scrolls are supported by AirBar's PC lineup, those actions were not available in the early Mac software demonstrated today. Those features are earmarked for inclusion in the production model, however.

Priced at $99 and initially limited to the 13-inch MacBook Air, AirBar will be available for purchase from Amazon in March. The company intends to market similar models compatible with other MacBook family products in the future, company representatives said today.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 28
    What I wonder is how a screen this isn't designed for touch input is going to hold up long term if subject to continual pressure and friction.

    For an unprotected screen, the like MB Air, it's going to be even worse.  Poking at a bare LCD to make it distort is kinda neat but not exactly good for its health.

    Even for a screen with a glass overlay, it won't do the AR coating any potential favors.
    edited January 5
  • Reply 2 of 28
    quadra 610quadra 610 Posts: 6,665member
    Terrible idea. 
    SpamSandwichMetriacanthosaurusmacplusplusStrangeDays
  • Reply 3 of 28
    jkichlinejkichline Posts: 1,131member
    I know some people are bemoaning the lack of touchscreen on the MacBook line but it still doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.  I want a laptop that's a great laptop and I think there are too many concessions that need to be made to turn a laptop into a touch-based form factor. Microsoft has been struggling to make a compelling case in my opinion. That's not a knock on the Surface line of laptops (which are certainly great and has impressed this Microsoft ex-developer) but they are great because they are great laptops.  I've had and developed for Tablet PCs years before the iPad and I can tell you this... it was a decent laptop.  I used it a few times as a tablet, lost the pen and realized that it's a terrible way to use Windows.  The iPad "got it right" and that's why it's the best selling tablet in the world aside from it's inherent limitations.  But those limitations are what make it a great, single form factor device.
    pscooter63
  • Reply 4 of 28
    This isn't a new idea. We've been running something like this in my department at a college for about 10 years. It's a usb screen that is mounted over the front of a 42" TV. Connecting the VGA input on the TV to a Mac, we turned it into a touchscreen computer.

    The problem is the 3rd party drivers and keeping them current with Apple's OS. Development on the touchscreen stalled and we had to stop OS updates on the computer to keep the touchscreen working. It needed to be calibrated weekly and that part was a little flaky too.

    Over all it was a cheap way to develop an interactive kiosk but someone had to constantly maintain it.

    The smaller the screen the more dense the pressure points on the touchscreen overlay will need to be. The ones we had were not dense enough to accurately use all the little click points in a program like Photoshop.

    It's an interesting idea in concept but application tends to be a bit wonky. We haven't seen any wear issues with the TV screen. The overlay screen is thick enough not to flex so the two don't actually ever come in contact with each other.

    I have a ModBook which is a similar approach just pen based instead of touch and it's works well but it's way out of date now.

    I would prefer it if Apple would just develop a product similar to the Microsoft Surface Studio. I think they scooped Apple on that one.

  • Reply 5 of 28
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 91member
    I may be in the minority, but I wish Apple would make a good touchscreen laptop. There are many things for which touching is more efficient than a trackpad, and Apple is essentially trying to market the iPad Pro (with keyboard and stylus) as a pseudo laptop computer. I need a replacement to my aging MacBook Air and iPad, and the cost/performance point of the latest MacBooks as well as the issues with battery life are driving me to look at PCs
    80s_Apple_Guy
  • Reply 6 of 28
    SpamSandwichSpamSandwich Posts: 25,697member
    jkichline said:
    I know some people are bemoaning the lack of touchscreen on the MacBook line but it still doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.  I want a laptop that's a great laptop and I think there are too many concessions that need to be made to turn a laptop into a touch-based form factor. Microsoft has been struggling to make a compelling case in my opinion. That's not a knock on the Surface line of laptops (which are certainly great and has impressed this Microsoft ex-developer) but they are great because they are great laptops.  I've had and developed for Tablet PCs years before the iPad and I can tell you this... it was a decent laptop.  I used it a few times as a tablet, lost the pen and realized that it's a terrible way to use Windows.  The iPad "got it right" and that's why it's the best selling tablet in the world aside from it's inherent limitations.  But those limitations are what make it a great, single form factor device.
    I do love my iPad Pro, but the file handling and sharing difficulties between an iOS device and a macOS device are enough to make one sufficiently angry to actually consider things like the Surface Studio, Windows 10 and all.
  • Reply 7 of 28
    SpamSandwichSpamSandwich Posts: 25,697member
    MplsP said:
    I may be in the minority, but I wish Apple would make a good touchscreen laptop. There are many things for which touching is more efficient than a trackpad, and Apple is essentially trying to market the iPad Pro (with keyboard and stylus) as a pseudo laptop computer. I need a replacement to my aging MacBook Air and iPad, and the cost/performance point of the latest MacBooks as well as the issues with battery life are driving me to look at PCs
    You're not in the minority.
    80s_Apple_Guy
  • Reply 8 of 28
    ben20ben20 Posts: 44member
    Great idea. And so cheap to add. It's about time Apple brings that to their notebooks.
  • Reply 9 of 28
    Who allows these people to spend time and money on such completely worthless junk products?

    Can I get some of this money?
  • Reply 10 of 28
    MacProMacPro Posts: 15,981member
    ben20 said:
    Great idea. And so cheap to add. It's about time Apple brings that to their notebooks.
    That or mouse support to iOS!  ;)
    entropys
  • Reply 11 of 28
    What are touch screens good for that you guys say you want one so badly? Serious question... I can pinch and zoom, scroll, switch apps, etc etc etc with my trackpad and never have to reach up to smear my fingers across the screen. I'm genuinely asking because work provided a touch screen laptop that I don't use the touch screen on even though I tried for about a week. I haven't found a solid use case for it. I suppose if you had a shitty windows laptop with an equally crappy touch pad that doesn't do half of what the Apple touch pad can do maybe you'd think a touch screen was handy, but I genuinely haven't found a use case for a touch screen in a laptop. those of you talking about using a pen on a laptop screen I really can't relate with. To me that sounds like lipstick on a pig. If you want to write or draw use a flat surface. Touching a screen in photoshop sounds aweful, using your fingers in office apps seems redundant against the mouse... so WTF is a touch screen for on a laptop? I think most pc's are compensating for their crappy track pads. 

    Regardless I would really appreciate some direct answers as opposed to comments saying "if apple would just release a touch capable laptop I'd could do my work so much better"... you have to state why it's better or how it speeds things up, because I don't see it. 
    edited January 5 MetriacanthosaurusStrangeDayschia
  • Reply 12 of 28
    jkichline said:
    I know some people are bemoaning the lack of touchscreen on the MacBook line but it still doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.  I want a laptop that's a great laptop and I think there are too many concessions that need to be made to turn a laptop into a touch-based form factor. Microsoft has been struggling to make a compelling case in my opinion. That's not a knock on the Surface line of laptops (which are certainly great and has impressed this Microsoft ex-developer) but they are great because they are great laptops.  I've had and developed for Tablet PCs years before the iPad and I can tell you this... it was a decent laptop.  I used it a few times as a tablet, lost the pen and realized that it's a terrible way to use Windows.  The iPad "got it right" and that's why it's the best selling tablet in the world aside from it's inherent limitations.  But those limitations are what make it a great, single form factor device.
    I do love my iPad Pro, but the file handling and sharing difficulties between an iOS device and a macOS device are enough to make one sufficiently angry to actually consider things like the Surface Studio, Windows 10 and all.
    With macOS Sierra, you can share everything from your iOS device onto the Documents and Desktop folders of your Mac and vice-versa.
  • Reply 13 of 28
    What are touch screens good for that you guys say you want one so badly? Serious question... I can pinch and zoom, scroll, switch apps, etc etc etc with my trackpad and never have to reach up to smear my fingers across the screen. I'm genuinely asking because work provided a touch screen laptop that I don't use the touch screen on even though I tried for about a week. I haven't found a solid use case for it. I suppose if you had a shitty windows laptop with an equally crappy touch pad that doesn't do half of what the Apple touch pad can do maybe you'd think a touch screen was handy, but I genuinely haven't found a use case for a touch screen in a laptop. those of you talking about using a pen on a laptop screen I really can't relate with. To me that sounds like lipstick on a pig. If you want to write or draw use a flat surface. Touching a screen in photoshop sounds aweful, using your fingers in office apps seems redundant against the mouse... so WTF is a touch screen for on a laptop? I think most pc's are compensating for their crappy track pads. 

    Regardless I would really appreciate some direct answers as opposed to comments saying "if apple would just release a touch capable laptop I'd could do my work so much better"... you have to state why it's better or how it speeds things up, because I don't see it. 

    I find touchscreen useful for various tasks like filling out forms, quick page navigation etc.  When reading through a questionnaire or needing quick navigation I find being able to tap the button on the screen quickly instead of going to the mouse or Trackpad, locating the cursor and moving it to the button to be much faster and easier.  This is one example.  It's not vital but it does make some tasks easier 

  • Reply 14 of 28
    entropysentropys Posts: 597member
    MacBook Air: The greatest and most popular laptop ever made.  

    Cook's Apple of course has killed it off with neglect and replaced it with much more expensive.
  • Reply 15 of 28

    I would prefer it if Apple would just develop a product similar to the Microsoft Surface Studio. I think they scooped Apple on that one.

    I'd have to disagree -- Apple has thought of it and tried prototypes but found them uncompelling. The studio is super niche -- how many illustrators are there? I'd bet the sales figures will be low. 
  • Reply 16 of 28

    MplsP said:
    I may be in the minority, but I wish Apple would make a good touchscreen laptop. There are many things for which touching is more efficient than a trackpad, and Apple is essentially trying to market the iPad Pro (with keyboard and stylus) as a pseudo laptop computer. I need a replacement to my aging MacBook Air and iPad, and the cost/performance point of the latest MacBooks as well as the issues with battery life are driving me to look at PCs
    You're not in the minority.
    From what group? Please share your data. Of the Apple/Mac geeks I know, most are aware of Jobs and Schiller stating how they tested touch Macs and thought it was a poor experience. Thus your desire for it would be in the minority. Or if we look at sales of touch PCs to non, another minority. Etc. 
  • Reply 17 of 28
    entropys said:
    MacBook Air: The greatest and most popular laptop ever made.  

    Cook's Apple of course has killed it off with neglect and replaced it with much more expensive.
    "Cook's Apple" -- that's almost becoming a trope... You speak as if Jobs would have surely kept old products already indefinitely, despite the fact that he killed the most popular iPod at its zenith. The Air has no purpose any longer, as the regular MacBooks have caught up in mobility. BTW the first Air was woefully slow and heavily criticized -- just like the first new MacBook. Same as it ever was.
    chia
  • Reply 18 of 28
    jkichline said:
    I know some people are bemoaning the lack of touchscreen on the MacBook line but it still doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.  I want a laptop that's a great laptop and I think there are too many concessions that need to be made to turn a laptop into a touch-based form factor. Microsoft has been struggling to make a compelling case in my opinion. That's not a knock on the Surface line of laptops (which are certainly great and has impressed this Microsoft ex-developer) but they are great because they are great laptops.  I've had and developed for Tablet PCs years before the iPad and I can tell you this... it was a decent laptop.  I used it a few times as a tablet, lost the pen and realized that it's a terrible way to use Windows.  The iPad "got it right" and that's why it's the best selling tablet in the world aside from it's inherent limitations.  But those limitations are what make it a great, single form factor device.
    I do love my iPad Pro, but the file handling and sharing difficulties between an iOS device and a macOS device are enough to make one sufficiently angry to actually consider things like the Surface Studio, Windows 10 and all.
    With macOS Sierra, you can share everything from your iOS device onto the Documents and Desktop folders of your Mac and vice-versa.
    Yes... in theory. Have you actually done it? It's proven to be a completely unworkable mess in reality.
  • Reply 19 of 28
    jkichline said:
    I know some people are bemoaning the lack of touchscreen on the MacBook line but it still doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.  I want a laptop that's a great laptop and I think there are too many concessions that need to be made to turn a laptop into a touch-based form factor. Microsoft has been struggling to make a compelling case in my opinion. That's not a knock on the Surface line of laptops (which are certainly great and has impressed this Microsoft ex-developer) but they are great because they are great laptops.  I've had and developed for Tablet PCs years before the iPad and I can tell you this... it was a decent laptop.  I used it a few times as a tablet, lost the pen and realized that it's a terrible way to use Windows.  The iPad "got it right" and that's why it's the best selling tablet in the world aside from it's inherent limitations.  But those limitations are what make it a great, single form factor device.
    I do love my iPad Pro, but the file handling and sharing difficulties between an iOS device and a macOS device are enough to make one sufficiently angry to actually consider things like the Surface Studio, Windows 10 and all.
    With macOS Sierra, you can share everything from your iOS device onto the Documents and Desktop folders of your Mac and vice-versa.
    Yes... in theory. Have you actually done it? It's proven to be a completely unworkable mess in reality.
    I have and it works flawlessly.
  • Reply 20 of 28
    entropysentropys Posts: 597member
    entropys said:
    MacBook Air: The greatest and most popular laptop ever made.  

    Cook's Apple of course has killed it off with neglect and replaced it with much more expensive.
    "Cook's Apple" -- that's almost becoming a trope... You speak as if Jobs would have surely kept old products already indefinitely, despite the fact that he killed the most popular iPod at its zenith. The Air has no purpose any longer, as the regular MacBooks have caught up in mobility. BTW the first Air was woefully slow and heavily criticized -- just like the first new MacBook. Same as it ever was.
    Jobs replaced the iPod mini with the nano, something better in every way. And no, the MacBook is not better. More expensive, less powerful and one port. The only meaningful thing it has is a better screen.
    edited January 5 80s_Apple_Guy
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