Good point, Tim, about the iPad and field applications in engineering.
To your other point, not only are CAD programs getting so rich in graphics capabilities, they are also borrowing lots of technology from the gaming world so we're starting to see photo realism and animation as a standard part of CAD platforms. This allows engineers to visualize how a particular mechanism might move within a design to check for parts interferences, for example, or to see how a particular part of a machine might operate from an ergonomics standpoint. All pretty amazing stuff!
An Ipad may not be the best device to design a component, but it is a fantastic tool to display a design to potential customers and management. The ability to zoom, pan, and rotate on a tablet is remarkable.
I remember when 100 mhz Pentiums became available and game software was readily available with graphics that blew away most CAD programs avaialbe on the market. Now the CAD software can display graphics with stunning effectivity.
The changes like the user interface all come along when design teams finally realize that tailoring the product to user needs and user ease ups the product's value. Apple is a master of this. The iPod, iPhone, and iPad all existed in different forms before Apple. But before Apple, users didn't care much for those early products.
Facebook beat MySpace for the same reason. While cool technology wins the first wave, the second wave is usually won when companies addresses the users' needs.
I believe current touch screens (Ipads and even the biggest tablets available) to be too small for efficient use for "next generation" human touch input. A mouse still seems the best way to turn human input (with small, precise motions) into commands for the computer.
To go beyond this, I think we'll begin to see larger input systems (beyond tablets). Microsoft blazed the way with Kinect. Imagine if you will, a Kinect vision system watching hand gestures, combined with haptic feedback gloves which would give some tactile feel to the 3D model you're manipulating with your hands. Maybe not surgical-precision fine feel, but the at least the feel that you're manipulating an object the size of a basketball in front of the screens on your desk.
The tricky part will be disengaging your hands from the 3D model to initiate commands. The mental image I have is your hands stuck on a sticky ball, unable to release it.
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