On the Surface, this looks good

15 Apr 2011

Microsoft has announced Surface 2.0, an evolved version of (surprisingly enough) its original Surface product. The original version looked like a little pool table, and was aimed at a small set of verticals where a horizontal, multi-touch system made sense. The system provided an environment where a group of people could get together and share information in a multi-touch environment, for example to bring together different items onto a single screen and move them without any need for a mouse or other external device. Graphics and documents could be resized through what we now see as standard touch movements – but the system was too bulky and costly for broad deployment.

This could be due to change with the new release. At the moment, the only product to be brought to market will be in conjunction with Microsoft’s partner, Samsung, and it will be called the Samsung SUR40 for Microsoft Surface – a 40in touchscreen, thin form factor device that can be used in both horizontal and vertical modes. In essence, Surface takes the idea of the touchscreen systems we are all becoming used to through our smartphones, tablets and slates and takes it to the nth degree through the provision of complex multi-touch capabilities.

The new system is far thinner, making it capable of being wall-mounted with standard VESA brackets as used for mounting TVs in home and commercial environments. Although this opens up a range of new uses, the problem is that horizontal and vertical use cases tend to be completely different. For example, in horizontal mode, users are far more likely to push items around on the screen; in vertical mode, they are far more likely to point at them. In horizontal mode, people can easily understand a desktop metaphor, whereas in vertical mode, it is more like working with a picture. Microsoft says it believes the horizontal mode will be used for longer interactions whereas vertical will be far more useful for short ones such as digital signage, where the user will  just want to gain access to information rapidly and move on.

Taken a bit further, working between the two leads to Surface possibly being used for fully interactive design, if used as a draughtsmen’s easel. Artists could use a Surface device at a 75° angle for “painting” an interactive, multimedia picture.

For the moment, usage is likely to be a little more prosaic – it makes sense for hotels to use these devices to interact with guests, allowing them to book services, identify the location of hotel amenities and so on. Visitor attractions can provide interactive installations that are driven by the visitors themselves, who can move through much larger volumes of information in a more interactive manner than through one which can work only against Next/Previous buttons.

Retail outlets can allow shoppers to not only identify where a certain department is, but to preview items and even for a group of people to build up an outfit by dragging and dropping clothes onto a mannequin – even changing the clothes’ colours. A group of people could work together to create a set of wedding outfits, for example, ensuring that everything matches and that everyone is happy with what they would be wearing on the day – all created against one of a set of standard backgrounds, or maybe a background created from an image provided by the bride-to-be.

However, the exciting stuff is far more likely to come down to the efficiency of the development community. Surface uses a vision-based system to identify touch – and does it to a very fine level of granularity. Many people can interact at the same time. To those who have used an Xbox 360, this may sound familiar. Microsoft’s Kinect games sensor works on a similar basis, but performs only gesture recognition, picking up the moves of people some distance away from the device. Surface can easily do both touch and gesture through being able to deal with near and far sensing. Smart technology may be required to identify when a person is only pointing, compared to when they are reaching out a finger ready to touch, but once a hybrid solution is in place, the possibilities of a highly powerful system emerge.

How about creating a mesh of Surface devices? A manufacturer in China, for example, could interact directly with designers and specialists around the world to ensure that the components of a final item all fit and work together, with the various individuals being able to move the items around in real time using gestures and touch rather than mice and keyboards.

Although the current systems are not aimed directly at consumers, the idea of a fully interactive media centre becomes closer to reality. Imagine a single system where video, image, voice and data all come together in a manner where the individual can choose how to interact. A voice message comes in – and it takes just a gesture to answer it (or not to) and then speak. An email – use touch to open it, read it, respond via touch or gesture and speech, then file through touch to a folder on the desktop. Want to watch TV? Have it over the whole of the 40in screen, then use touch or gesture to make it smaller – but not too small – so that you can deal with something else at the same time. Another person wants to interact with part of the screen while you’re doing something? Surface enables people to work in their own area and choose whether each person is sandboxed from each other, or can interact with what others are doing.

Surface 2.0 looks good, and will undoubtedly be welcomed by the high-end retail and hospitality organisations, as well as being useful in Microsoft’s existing Surface markets of education, defence, automotive and healthcare. Provided sales increase and more hardware partners join Samsung to drive sales, costs should come down and so make Surface-based devices more available to the lower end of the possible market. We may yet see the likes of Wal-Mart, Tesco and Carrefour using Surface-based devices to interact with shoppers and enable them to find out what wine goes best with the meat they have just chosen.

Overall, we’re getting close to what was shown in the film Minority Report, with its walls of interactive information – but Microsoft has to ensure that commercial value is perceived and then gained, rather than Surface-based devices being seen as the next executive toy. Again, the development community will be the main factor in this, and Microsoft must ensure that what is seen coming down the line has all the capabilities to boost prospective buyers’ revenue and profits.

Clive Longbottom, Service Director, Business Process Analysis, Quocirca

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Reader comments

Surface could be at home if it's connected with XBox

If MS takes the PC out of surface and use XBox to drive Surface, they can reduce the price down a lot and there will a lot of board games on Surface. Disconnect from XBox, Surface will just work as a TV.

Posted by: jack  15 Apr 2011