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

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.