For the past few years, I’ve been talking about digital surfaces predominating our future, and my postings, “The Old Medium becomes the New Content” and “P-Learning: Fill up your Tank and your Head?” pointed out some good examples of this trend. So you can imagine how excited I was to see today’s announcement of Microsoft’s ventures in this direction and I’m particularly excited about the name they chose. It may not be a cool product name but it's hot stuff for me!
At the "D: All Things Digital" conference on May 29th, Microsoft finally revealed a well-kept 5-year secret, code named “Milan”, and now unveiled as Microsoft Surface. This technology is part hardware and part software and some are referring to it as a “Table PC”. Read that term carefully—that’s TABLE as in “desk” and is not to be confused with the one with the extra "t", the Tablet PC, though it too may also benefit from this surface technology down the road.
The hardware behind it is fairly straightforward, though a feat in itself, because it is a large multi-touch screen or display, typically about 30 inches in size, which is mounted horizontally, facing up like the surface of a small table. To have the imagery display directly on the touch screen required a combination of angled side projection and touch screen technology.
Of course, hardware without software doesn’t do much. Add Microsoft Surface software into the equation, and things get really interesting. The software makes it into a full multi-touch display with lots of built-in features for gestures, recognition, etc. “Multi-touch” means that the screen responds to almost any number of simultaneous touches. You can do simple finger painting using up to all ten fingers at once, or perform more complex manipulations using multiple fingers on both hands, such as stretching out an image or window, or rearranging and moving windows around with your hands.
You can also “pass” things that are on the screen over to someone else. Many individual users can physically fit around the “table”, interacting with the surface simultaneously. One additionally interesting fact is that Microsoft will produce both the hardware and the software, something they are already doing, for example, with the Xbox 360 and the Zune music player.
It’s been quite a news item, so there are lots of links about it. Here are the ones that I thought give the best understanding and demonstrations:
- The Microsoft Surface site has a full complement of videos, pictures and specs.
- ZDNet has a demonstration of Microsoft Surface and a Ziff Davis interview with the product marketing manager, Mark Folger.
- TechCrunch posted an announcement "Microsoft Announces Surface Computer".
- USA Today’s more detailed report “Table is Set for Computing” has some good examples of applications.
- CNet News provides an in-depth write-up called “Microsoft hopes 'Milan' table PC has magic touch”
- ZDNet posted a background story on “How the ‘Milan’ table PC was born”.
- Even the New York Times got into it with multiple articles such as the one appropriately titled "Much Ado About Microsoft's Surface Computer"
Of course, such multi-user multi-touch screens are not new, nor are they something Microsoft invented, and Jeff Han is often cited for his excellent research and development of multi-person, multi-touch technology and interfaces. It is well worth as much time as you can to look over his site. Jeff has a popular demo, which you can see below:
And if you like that one, have a look at a similarly fascinating demo from Jeff that Fast Company posted called “Remapping the Universe”. Jeff has also recently started a company with the great name of “Perceptive Pixel” to help commercialize and develop his work, so let’s hope we’ll be seeing much more of this technology move from the lab to our tables. Fast Company also has a very good in-depth interview with Jeff called "Can't Touch This" that is recommended reading.
When you check out some of the demos of Microsoft Surface, you’ll also notice some fascinating additional capabilities such as the ability to:
- Use some physical objects to perform tasks, such painting on the surface using a real paintbrush.
- Use gestures that are reasonably intuitive, such as the way you would normally work to rearrange things on a table (move them around, stack them), but with the added ability to shrink or expand them, or have them include movement, such as animations and video. If you’ve seen the movie Minority Report, you’ll have the basic idea, and the demos will show you more in a few minutes, so I’d recommend you watch them.
- Have physical objects “tagged” in several ways. For example, a “domino tag” can be attached or embedded into the physical objects, which are then recognized by the surface when you set them on it, and they can also communicate with the surface and computer to trigger further actions. This really starts to mix and mingle the physical “real world” with the digital virtual one. For example, you can read or recognize credit cards, loyalty cards, drink glasses, and paint brushes.
Initially, Microsoft Surface technology is planned for use in businesses and high traffic areas, such as airports, cafes, and restaurants, casinos, etc., and comes with initial pricing to match—estimated at about US$10,000. However, we can expect that this technology will follow the same inevitable and rapid reduction in cost as other technologies, and will see equally rapid increases in performance.
The upcoming Apple iPhone and the some of the new Tablet PC screens, such as the new IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad X60, also have multi-touch displays, and are designed for the mass market, so they will introduce more of us to this new type of interaction and interface.
Therefore, NOW is the time for us to prepare and think about how we could utilize this type of technology in the workplace, the home, and the classroom.
- Think about using it to interact with maps.
- Imagine every desktop surface in your meeting rooms and classrooms having this ability.
- Imagine walls that are huge multi-touch surfaces!
- Rather than a computer on every desk, what if every desk were a computer?
Add to this vision some other recent announcements, such as the new addition to Google Maps called “Street View”, which allows you to pick any spot on a map and get a fully immersive set of 3D images that you can control. Microsoft’s “Photosynth” technology takes a large collection of photos of a place or an object, analyzes them for similarities, and displays them in a reconstructed three-dimensional space. Imagine working with these on a tabletop surface that you, your friends, family, students and co-workers are sitting around and can now interact with, rearrange, zoom in on, and explore together.
I’m particularly interested in the area of human computer interaction, and specifically, bringing our human “action” (such as that of our hands) much closer to the action on the display. When you think about it, the gap is currently very wide, given our reliance on keyboards, mice, trackballs, and game pads. For this reason, I’m still a big fan of tablet PCs and believe they are still on track to hit a tipping point of popularity and ubiquity in the next few years. As mentioned above, the new ThinkPad X60 tablet PC's have an optional multi-touch screen, so the trajectory continues to be clear to me.
With Microsoft Surface, our hands and our gestures are now right up against the display images, about as close as we’ve come so far to being one and the same. Next, we will break through the limitations of two-dimensional devices and begin to have three-dimensional representations and haptic (force) feedback so that we can feel the objects and models, and begin to sculpt “virtual clay” with our hands.
As additional dimensions and senses (such as smell, texture, time, locations, and sound) are added to this equation, the whole computer interface issue will increasingly fade and eventually become transparent.
Then we can focus on what we are doing and the results we are trying to achieve. We can use our abilities to visualize and express our ideas for others, to do “digital prototyping”, and experience things before they are “real”. Of course, ultimately we will continue to blur the distinction between what’s real and what’s virtual, and literally redefine what “real” even means.
So here is another set of examples where powerful new things are equal parts exciting and frightening. However as I like to point out, WE are the decision makers in all this, and it is up to us to make sure that the future that “surfaces” is one we really want and like!