Thoughts on product design and user experience

Get off it, designers: Microsoft Surface IS in fact a big deal

Written by bbb on May 30, 2007

Am I in an alternate universe here? Twice in one month, I find myself actually excited by new Microsoft products. At MIX07, I watched from the audience as Silverlight was announced; today, I wake up to the news that Microsoft is launching a 30-inch touchscreen table with a gestural interface.

This new product, called Surface, attempts to commercialize a variety of technologies that have been in research labs for at least a decade. Its “multi-touch” screen can detect inputs from several different people at once; its infrared “machine vision” system recognizes objects placed on the surface; and its user interface is gestural, meaning the only devices you need are at your fingertips — quite literally. Think a tabletop-sized version of Apple’s iPhone interface. If you haven’t already, check out the video or the story at Popular Mechanics:

But what the heck? The design community has reacted with a big “Bah!”, at least judging by reactions today on the IxDA discussion list. The consensus is that it’s cool and novel, but the subtext is that it’s unlikely to be more. Come on people, don’t be ridiculous: this is a big deal. We should be cheering. Between the iPhone and Surface, we’re seeing a new world of UI design opening up for commercial development. Steve Jobs is hinting that Apple will allow 3rd party applications on the iPhone; Surface will be supported by Microsoft’s development tools, including the Expression Suite. That puts new and tremendously exciting design opportunities squarely within reach of us all. Technologies such as this make bring us nearer to our inevitable destination of pervasive computing.

Although admitting that Surface will excel in a few contexts, several criticisms were raised today:

  • Interactions seem unnatural and there will be ergonomic issues.
  • The screen will get dirty.
  • It’s not likely to be useful for much more than looking at photos or multimedia.
  • The form factor (as a coffee table) seems inappropriate.
  • Worries about security, meaning what happens to my information after I’ve finished using a table in a public space?

These are imminently solvable problems. Plus, they miss the point: we’re getting a peek at Surface 1.0 today. I suspect the main goal of today’s announcement is to generate excitement and spark the imaginations of designers and developers. Please, if you’re a designer, tell me it’s had that effect. We’re supposed to be abductive thinkers! Get past the dirty coffee table and you might imagine some killer apps for Surface.

Posted Under: Design, IxDA


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3 responses to “Get off it, designers: Microsoft Surface IS in fact a big deal”

  1. Pleased to report that discussion of Surface is becoming more positive on the IxDA list. We’re starting to kick around some ideas about usage scenarios for large multi-touch screens. Here are a few I just suggested:

    Meeting room whiteboards. Here’s one that I would personally love to see today: imagine a large multi-touch wall. Interact with your hands, with pens or pointing devices, with real-world objects; work on a blank surface, a static image, or with an interactive application of some sort. A new breed of productivity or creativity software could arise from this, designed to help teams collaborate.

    Retail. Retail stores could go crazy with this, offering numerous ways for people to explore and learn about inventory. Inset one into the front window and static displays would seem quaint in comparison, as you could actually *engage* passers-by.

    Planning transportation. A large interactive surface area could be a pleasure to work with in comparison to current options. Imagine a subway/metro station: plunk down your mobile phone or credit card; select your destination(s), click to pay and get your ticket, pick up your phone/card and walk away. Similar idea at airports and bus stations.

    Restaurants. Has anyone here NOT been frustrated at the difficulty of splitting a table’s bill among sub-groups of the diners? A large interactive surface could make this a cakewalk (ahem). I believe this scenario was illustrated in the Surface video, in fact. If cost is prohibitive, all that’s required is single device in the restaurant for anyone to use during payment.

  2. ROFL. Check out this great parody of Surface, in which the soundtrack to Microsoft’s promotional video has been replaced…

  3. Architects says:

    I don’t see it myself. It seems to me like Microsoft come up with a technology and then figure out a use for it. It seems ridiculous to use something so large and expensive when most handheld devices do the same thing. Most of the things they do in demonstration would be easier to do in real life, like the paying in a restaurant one: it’s far easier just to give the waiter your card, and ask him to put x amount on one and x amount on another.

    And don’t even get me started on the pictures. Surely it’s easier to just click the send image via bluetooth option on your camera straight to another rather than use a big-assed table and have to physically drag them?

    – Meeting room whiteboards – it’s easier to use a pen, my friend.

    – Retail. I could see this thing being swamped by kids, for most adults it would be easier and quicker to go grab the item you want.

    – Planning transportation. Much easier to ask the dude in the ticket office, no? And to be honest, ticketing machines on metro lines aren’t exactly complicated…

    – Restaurants. yeah, $10,000 is well worth it to make splitting a bill easier. It’s such a challenging thing to do…

    It seems that everything on this machine can be done by a human much easier and quicker than by this computer. It’s nothing more than a big gimmick. It’ll be as successful as Microsoft’s tablet PCs…