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9/12/2008
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Apple Patent Describes 'Throw' Command

The patent application suggests that on the desktop, the user would select an object and then enter "CTRL-T" followed by an "Up-Arrow" command to launch a file toward a sort bucket.

Many frustrated computer users have felt the urge to toss their computers out the window. Though the cost-conscious generally settle for hurling epithets, Apple is planning to allow its customers to throw data.

In a patent application filed Thursday titled "Animating Thrown Data Objects In A Project Environment," Apple describes a new way to interact with large numbers of computer files.

Just as Apple's iTunes Cover Flow interface allows iPod Touch and iPhone users to simulate the turning of pages in response to tactile input, the company's thrown data patent application proposes "mechanisms that animate a thrown data object in a way that simulates the trajectory of a real world object after it has been thrown."

Though what Apple is describing might make mundane desktop interactions into something more like a computer game -- throwing animations would correlate object speed with mouse or gesture movement, as seen in games that model physics -- the company is proposing this new way of working as a way to save time and conserve movement.

"The goal of throwing an object is to reduce the amount of movement a user must make when sorting data objects," the patent application explains.

The patent application suggests that on the desktop, the user would select an object and then enter "CTRL-T" followed by an "Up-Arrow" command to launch a file toward a sort bucket at the top of the screen.

Sort buckets, as described, could be simple folders that sort files according to certain characteristics, or they could be containers that execute programmable batch operations in applications like Adobe Photoshop, for example.

Apple specifically contemplates the use of thrown files with photo-editing applications, where traditional drag-and-drop file selection can be difficult if hundreds or thousands of files are involved.

"The process of dragging and dropping items to buckets works fairly well for a small number of items," the patent application explains. "However, as the number of items grows, the time it takes to manually move each item from its original location to a folder or bucket becomes increasingly greater, and, in the end, wastes a lot of the user's time. Thus, there is a need in the art for techniques that improve the way a user can sort and categorize items on a computer."

The ability to throw files could be particularly useful for users of multi-touch input devices. Indeed, this patent application may be part of a broader effort by Apple to make user-computer interaction more tactile and gesture-based.

It will be interesting to see whether the ability to throw data changes how people work with applications. Normally, computer operations begin upon command and end as soon as the data is crunched. But when files are thrown across a desktop, or perhaps across a network, they are committed to processing that doesn't begin until they arrive. During this interval, related work could be done, not unlike an assembly line where objects get altered as they move past workers. It's not hard to imagine a company like Pixar "throwing" files across its network as a way to set a deadline for film frame touch-up work.

At the very least, should Apple decide to add throwing to a future version of Mac OS X, users will have the opportunity to toss files across the desktop toward the trash can and miss, just like at the office.

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