When you think about the “cool companies” in the technology space that are working on “cool things”, Microsoft is usually not the name that first jumps to everyone’s mind. And yet, yesterday I learned about something Microsoft is working on that made me say “Wow, that’s cool”.
My colleague William Henry mentioned Microsoft Surface in a recent blog posting; I hadn’t heard of Surface before and checked it out based on William’s recommendation. The concept behind it was quite impressive and I agree with William that this is the type of thing that I would expect ot see from Apple, not Microsoft.
Image an entire table top (about the size of a coffee table) that is a touch sensitive computer screen. What ever gets displayed on the screen can be interacted with in a iPhone sort of way. If there are photos on the screen, they look like a bunch of photos just tossed on a table. Grab one and it moves to the top of the stack; drag your fingers at opposite corners and resize the photo; grab a corner drag in a half circle to rotate the photo to show to your friend sitting on the oppose side of the table; touching the photo and flicking your finger tosses the photo aside.
Now take that same table and integrate it via bluetooth with you cell phone, iPod (of course on the Surface website they use that Microsoft music player…), camera, or other portable device of choice. Lay the device on the table, and the table now displays options for interfacing with the device and accessing data on the device. If it’s a camera, the photos display as in the example above. If its an iPod…er…music player, songs are displayed from your collection as well as from the phone. Dragging the songs from your collection to the music player transfers the songs.
The other example Microsoft gives is in a restaurant where your menu is displayed on the table. After you order via Surface, the table changes into some hip night club psychedelic screen savers. Or, as more apt to happen in our modern age, it might start displaying advertisements.
The concept of Surface is intriguing and has a lot of potential behind it, some that aren’t even imagined yet. It completely removes the interface device aspect of working with a computer. The interaction has the potential to be much more humanistic and nature. Has the potential. There are some aspects about Surface that are a bit ahead of their time. Like how quickly photos could be transfered from a phone to the Surface via wireless connection (it takes me many minutes to transfer my photos to my computer today via a high speed USB port). Not to mention the interoperability issues with all the different phone, camera manufacturers.
If Surface ever becomes a reality, the key to it’s success will depend on the development community. The iPhone has been out for just about two weeks now, and there are already a rush of new software applications coming out for it. Someone was smart enough to have a iPhone developer boot camp the weekend after the phone was released (sad thing is that it appears that Apple wasn’t smart enough to sponsor or get involved in it). This type of network around Surface would be sure to generate some really amazing things. Of course, when it is actually released.
To really appreciate Surface, you gotta check out the demo movies on the Surface website. Regardless of how real the technology is right now, the concept is killer. After the last movie, I got bit by the sci-fi aspect that Surface could have. How about placing a stack of documents on it, having them get absorbed into the surface and digitized. Then send those documents to another Surface user half way around the world only to have the stack emerge from that Surface so the receiver can pick them up and walk away. Might be a bit too Star Trek for now, but we’re getting there.
Side Box: Actually two really cool things from Microsoft. The other that has recently come out of Microsoft in conjunction with some research conducted at University of Washington is Photosynth. This is an amazing fast and unique way to interact with photos and view associated photos as they relate to the real world. You are given a 3-D view of something and can zoom in and out of photos of that thing taken from different angles. The killer aspect is that those photos could all be from a public archive like Flickr and taken by different people. The best way to understand Photosynth is to watch a killer demo of this from TED2007 and play around with a demo from Microsoft Labs.